Spellchecked by M. Avrekh, 21 Dec 1999
FOREWORD
“Lolita, or the Confession of a White Widowed Male,” such were the
two titles under which the writer of the present note received the strange
pages it preambulates. “Humbert Humbert,” their author, had died in legal
captivity, of coronary thrombosis, on November 16, 1952, a few days before
his trial was scheduled to start. His lawyer, my good friend and relation,
Clarence Choate Clark, Esq., now of the District of Columbia bar, in asking
me to edit the manuscript, based his request on a clause in his client’s
will which empowered my eminent cousin to use the discretion in all matters
pertaining to the preparation of “Lolita” for print. Mr. Clark’s decision
may have been influenced by the fact that the editor of his choice had just
been awarded the Poling Prize for a modest work (“Do the Senses make
Sense?”) wherein certain morbid states and perversions had been discussed.

My task proved simpler than either of us had anticipated. Save for the
correction of obvious solecisms and a careful suppression of a few tenacious
details that despite “H.H.”‘s own efforts still subsisted in his text as
signposts and tombstones (indicative of places or persons that taste would
conceal and compassion spare), this remarkable memoir is presented intact.
Its author’s bizarre cognomen is his own invention; and, of course, this
mask–through which two hypnotic eyes seem to glow–had to remain unlifted
in accordance with its wearer’s wish. While “Haze” only rhymes with the
heroine’s real surname, her first name is too closely interwound with the
inmost fiber of the book to allow one to alter it; nor (as the reader will
perceive for himself) is there any practical necessity to do so. References
to “H.H.”‘s crime may be looked up by the inquisitive in the daily papers
for September-October 1952; its cause and purpose would have continued to
come under my reading lamp.
For the benefit of old-fashioned readers who wish to follow the
destinies of the “real” people beyond the “true” story, a few details may be
given as received from Mr. “Windmuller,” or “Ramsdale,” who desires his
identity suppressed so that “the long shadow of this sorry and sordid
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business” should not reach the community to which he is proud to belong. His
daughter, “Louise,” is by now a college sophomore, “Mona Dahl” is a student
in Paris. “Rita” has recently married the proprietor of a hotel in Florida.
Mrs. “Richard F. Schiller” died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn
girl, on Christmas Day 1952, in Gray Star, a settlemen in the remotest
Northwest. “Vivian Darkbloom” has written a biography, “My Cue,” to be
publshed shortly, and critics who have perused the manuscript call it her
best book. The caretakers of the various cemeteries involved report that no
ghosts walk.
Viewed simply as a novel, “Lolita” deals with situations and emotions
that would remain exasperatingly vague to the reader had their expression
been etiolated by means of platitudinous evasions. True, not a single
obscene term is to be found in the whole work; indeed, the robust philistine
who is conditioned by modern conventions into accepting without qualms a
lavish array of four-letter words in a banal novel, will be quite shocked by
their absence here. If, however, for this paradoxical prude’s comfort, an
editor attempted to dilute or omit scenes that a certain type of mind might
call “aphrodisiac” (see in this respect the monumental decision rendered
December 6, 1933, by Hon. John M. Woolsey in regard to another, considerably
more outspoken, book), one would have to forego the publication of “Lolita”
altogether, since those very scenes that one might ineptly accuse of
sensuous existence of their own, are the most strictly functional ones in
the development of a tragic tale tending unswervingly to nothing less than
a moral apotheosis. The cynic may say that commercial pornography makes the
same claim; the learned may counter by asserting that “H.H.”‘s impassioned
confession is a tempest in a test tube; that at least 12% of American adult
males–a “conservative” estimate according to Dr. Blanche Schwarzmann
(verbal communication)–enjoy yearly, in one way or another, the special
experience “H.H.” describes with such despare; that had our demented diarist
gone, in the fatal summer of 1947, to a competent psycho-pathologist, there
would have been no disaster; but then, neither would there have been this
book.
This commentator may be excused for repeating what he has stressed in
his own books and lectures, namely that “offensive” is frequently but a
synonym for “unusual;” and a great work of art is of course always original,
and thus by its very nature should come as a more or less shocking surprise.
I have no intention to glorify “H.H.” No doubt, he is horrible, is is
abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and
jocularity that betrays supreme misery perhaps, but is not conducive to
attractiveness. He is ponderously capricious. Many of his casual opinions on
the people and scenery of this country are ludicrous. A desperate honesty
that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of
diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman. But how magically
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his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that
makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author!
As a case history, “Lolita” will become, no doubt, a classic in
psychiatric circles. As a work of art, it transcends its expiatory aspects;
and still more important to us than scientific significance and literary
worth, is the ethical impact the book should have on the serious reader; for
in this poignant personal study there lurks a general lesson; the wayward
child, the egotistic mother, the panting maniac–these are not only vivid
characters in a unique story: they warn us of dangerous trends; they point
out potent evils. “Lolita” should make all of us–parents, social workers,
educators–apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the
task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.
John Ray, Jr., Ph.D.
Widworth, Mass
* PART ONE *
1
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta:
the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap,
at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one
sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on
the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact,
there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a
certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as
many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always
count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the
seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this
tangle of thorns.
2
I was born in 1910, in Paris. My father was a gentle, easy-going
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person, a salad of racial genes: a Swiss citizen, of mixed French and
Austrian descent, with a dash of the Danube in his veins. I am going to pass
around in a minute some lovely, glossy-blue picture-postcards. He owned a
luxurious hotel on the Riviera. His father and two grandfathers had sold
wine, jewels and silk, respectively. At thirty he married an English girl,
daughter of Jerome Dunn, the alpinist, and granddaughter of two Dorset
parsons, experts in obscure subjects–paleopedology and Aeolian harps,
respectively. My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic,
lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest
past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory, over
which, if you can still stand my style (I am writing under observation), the
sun of my infancy had set: surely, you all know those redolent remnants of
day suspended, with the midges, about some hedge in bloom or suddenly
entered and traversed by the rambler, at the bottom of a hill, in the summer
dusk; a furry warmth, golden midges.
My mother’s elder sister, Sybil, whom a cousin of my father’s had
married and then neglected, served in my immediate family as a kind of
unpaid governess and housekeeper. Somebody told me later that she had been
in love with my father, and that he had lightheartedly taken advantage of it
one rainy day and forgotten it by the time the weather cleared. I was
extremely fond of her, despite the rigidity–the fatal rigidity–of some of
her rules. Perhaps she wanted to make of me, in the fullness of time, a
better widower than my father. Aunt Sybil had pink-rimmed azure eyes and a
waxen complexion. She wrote poetry. She was poetically superstitious. She
said she knew she would die soon after my sixteenth birthday, and did. Her
husband, a great traveler in perfumes, spent most of his time in America,
where eventually he founded a firm and acquired a bit of real estate.
I grew, a happy, healthy child in a bright would of illustrated books,
clean sand, orange trees, friendly dogs, sea vistas and smiling faces.
Around me the splendid Hotel Mirana revolved as a kind of private universe,
a whitewashed cosmos within the blue greater one that blazed outside. From
the aproned pot-scrubber to the flanneled potentate, everybody liked me,
everybody petted me. Elderly American ladies leaning on their canes listed
towards me like towers of Pisa. Ruined Russian princesses who could not pay
my father, bought me expensive bonbons. He, mon cher petit papa, took
me out boating and biking, taught me to swim and dive and water-ski, read to
me Don Quixote and Les Miserables, and I adored and respected
him and felt glad for him whenever I overheard the servants discuss his
various lady-friends, beautiful and kind beings who made much of me and
cooed and shed precious tears over my cheerful motherlessness.
I attended an English day school a few miles from home, and there I
played rackets and fives, and got excellent marks, and was on perfect terms
with schoolmates and teachers alike. The only definite sexual events that I
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can remember as having occurred before my thirteenth birthday (that is,
before I first saw my little Annabel) were: a solemn, decorous and purely
theoretical talk about pubertal surprises in the rose garden of the school
with an American kid, the son of a then celebrated motion-picture actress
whom he seldom saw in the three-dimensional world; and some interesting
reactions on the part of my organism to certain photographs, pearl and
umbra, with infinitely soft partings, in Pichon’s sumptuous La Beautè
Humaine that that I had filched from under a mountain of marble-bound
Graphics in the hotel library. Later, in his delightful debonair
manner, my father gave me all the information he thought I needed about sex;
this was just before sending me, in the autumn of 1923, to a lycèe in
Lyon (where we were to spend three winters); but alas, in the summer of that
year, he was touring Italy with Mme de R. and her daughter, and I had nobody
to complain to, nobody to consult.
3
Annabel was, like the writer, of mixed parentage: half-English,
half-Dutch, in her case. I remember her features far less distinctly today
than I did a few years ago, before I knew Lolita. There are two kinds of
visual memory: one when you skillfully recreate an image in the laboratory
of your mind, with your eyes open (and then I see Annabel in such general
terms as: “honey-colored skin,” “think arms,” “brown bobbed hair,” “long
lashes,” “big bright mouth”); and the other when you instantly evoke, with
shut eyes, on the dark inner side of your eyelids, the objective, absolutely
optical replica of a beloved face, a little ghost in natural colors (and
this is how I see Lolita).
Let me therefore primly limit myself, in describing Annabel, to saying
she was a lovely child a few months my junior. Her parents were old friends
of my aunt’s, and as stuffy as she. They had rented a villa not far from
Hotel Mirana. Bald brown Mr. Leigh and fat, powdered Mrs. Leigh (born
Vanessa van Ness). How I loathed them! At first, Annabel and I talked of
peripheral affairs. She kept lifting handfuls of fine sand and letting it
pour through her fingers. Our brains were turned the way those of
intelligent European preadolescents were in our day and set, and I doubt if
much individual genius should be assigned to our interest in the plurality
of inhabited worlds, competitive tennis, infinity, solipsism and so on. The
softness and fragility of baby animals caused us the same intense pain. She
wanted to be a nurse in some famished Asiatic country; I wanted to be a
famous spy.
All at once we were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love
with each other; hopelessly, I should add, because that frenzy of mutual
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possession might have been assuaged only by our actually imbibing and
assimilating every particle of each other’s soul and flesh; but there we
were, unable even to mate as slum children would have so easily found an
opportunity to do. After one wild attempt we made to meet at night in her
garden (of which more later), the only privacy we were allowed was to be out
of earshot but not out of sight on the populous part of the plage.
There, on the soft sand, a few feet away from our elders, we would sprawl
all morning, in a petrified paroxysm of desire, and take advantage of every
blessed quirk in space and time to touch each other: her hand, half-hidden
in the sand, would creep toward me, its slender brown fingers sleepwalking
nearer and nearer; then, her opalescent knee would start on a long cautious
journey; sometimes a chance rampart built by younger children granted us
sufficient concealment to graze each other’s salty lips; these incomplete
contacts drove our healthy and inexperienced young bodies to such a state of
exasperation that not even the cold blue water, under which we still clawed
at each other, could bring relief.
Among some treasures I lost during the wanderings of my adult years,
there was a snapshot taken by my aunt which showed Annabel, her parents and
the staid, elderly, lame gentleman, a Dr. Cooper, who that same summer
courted my aunt, grouped around a table in a sidewalk cafe. Annabel did not
come out well, caught as she was in the act of bending over her chocolat
glacè, and her thin bare shoulders and the parting in her hair were
about all that could be identified (as I remember that picture) amid the
sunny blur into which her lost loveliness graded; but I, sitting somewhat
apart from the rest, came out with a kind of dramatic conspicuousness: a
moody, beetle-browed boy in a dark sport shirt and well-tailored white
shorts, his legs crossed, sitting in profile, looking away. That photograph
was taken on the last day of our fatal summer and just a few minutes before
we made our second and final attempt to thwart fate. Under the flimsiest of
pretexts (this was our very last chance, and nothing really mattered) we
escaped from the cafe to the beach, and found a desolate stretch of sand,
and there, in the violet shadow of some red rocks forming a kind of cave,
had a brief session of avid caresses, with somebody’s lost pair of
sunglasses for only witness. I was on my knees, and on the point of
possessing my darling, when two bearded bathers, the old man of the sea and
his brother, came out of the sea with exclamations of ribald encouragement,
and four months later she died of typhus in Corfu.
4
I leaf again and again through these miserable memories, and keep
asking myself, was it then, in the glitter of that remote summer, that the
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rift in my life began; or was my excessive desire for that child only the
first evidence of an inherent singularity? When I try to analyze my own
cravings, motives, actions and so forth, I surrender to a sort of
retrospective imagination which feeds the analytic faculty with boundless
alternatives and which causes each visualized route to fork and re-fork
without end in the maddeningly complex prospect of my past. I am convinced,
however, that in a certain magic and fateful way Lolita began with Annabel.
I also know that the shock of Annabel’s death consolidated the
frustration of that nightmare summer, made of it a permanent obstacle to any
further romance throughout the cold years of my youth. The spiritual and the
physical had been blended in us with a perfection that must remain
incomprehensible to the matter-of-fact, crude, standard-brained youngsters
of today. Long after her death I felt her thoughts floating through mine.
Long before we met we had had the same dreams. We compared notes. We found
strange affinities. The same June of the same year (1919) a stray canary had
fluttered into her house and mine, in two widely separated countries. Oh,
Lolita, had you loved me thus!
I have reserved for the conclusion of my “Annabel” phase the account of
our unsuccessful first tryst. One night, she managed to deceive the vicious
vigilance of her family. In a nervous and slender-leaved mimosa grove at the
back of their villa we found a perch on the ruins of a low stone wall.
Through the darkness and the tender trees we could see the arabesques of
lighted windows which, touched up by the colored inks of sensitive memory,
appear to me now like playing cards–presumably because a bridge game was
keeping the enemy busy. She trembled and twitched as I kissed the corner of
her parted lips and the hot lobe of her ear. A cluster of stars palely
glowed above us, between the silhouettes of long thin leaves; that vibrant
sky seemed as naked as she was under her light frock. I saw her face in the
sky, strangely distinct, as if it emitted a faint radiance of its own. Her
legs, her lovely live legs, were not too close together, and when my hand
located what it sought, a dreamy and eerie expression, half-pleasure,
half-pain, came over those childish features. She sat a little higher than
I, and whenever in her solitary ecstasy she was led to kiss me, her head
would bend with a sleepy, soft, drooping movement that was almost woeful,
and her bare knees caught and compressed my wrist, and slackened again; and
her quivering mouth, distorted by the acridity of some mysterious potion,
with a sibilant intake of breath came near to my face. She would try to
relieve the pain of love by first roughly rubbing her dry lips against mine;
then my darling would draw away with a nervous toss of her hair, and then
again come darkly near and let me feed on her open mouth, while with a
generosity that was ready to offer her everything, my heart, my throat, my
entrails, I have her to hold in her awkward fist the scepter of my passion.
I recall the scent of some kind of toilet powder–I believe she stole
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it from her mother’s Spanish maid–a sweetish, lowly, musky perfume. It
mingled with her own biscuity odor, and my senses were suddenly filled to
the brim; a sudden commotion in a nearby bush prevented them from
overflowing–and as we drew away from each other, and with aching veins
attended to what was probably a prowling cat, there came from the house her
mother’s voice calling her, with a rising frantic note–and Dr. Cooper
ponderously limped out into the garden. But that mimosa grove–the haze of
stars, the tingle, the flame, the honey-dew, and the ache remained with me,
and that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me
ever since–until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by
incarnating her in another.
5
The days of my youth, as I look back on them, seem to fly away from me
in a flurry of pale repetitive scraps like those morning snow storms of used
tissue paper that a train passenger sees whirling in the wake of the
observation car. In my sanitary relations with women I was practical,
ironical and brisk. While a college student, in London and Paris, paid
ladies sufficed me. My studies were meticulous and intense, although not
particularly fruitful. At first, I planned to take a degree in psychiatry
and many manquè talents do; but I was even more manquè than
that; a peculiar exhaustion, I am so oppressed, doctor, set in; and I
switched to English literature, where so many frustrated poets end as
pipe-smoking teachers in tweeds. Paris suited me. I discussed Soviet movies
with expatriates. I sat with uranists in the Deux Magots. I published
tortuous essays in obscure journals. I composed pastiches:
…Fräulen von Kulp
may turn, her hand upon the door;
I will not follow her. Nor Fresca. Nor
that Gull.
A paper of mine entitled “The Proustian theme in a letter from Keats to
Benjamin Bailey” was chuckled over by the six or seven scholars who read it.
I launched upon an “Histoire abregèe de la poèsie anglaise” for a
prominent publishing firm, and then started to compile that manual of French
literature for English-speaking students (with comparisons drawn from
English writers) which was to occupy me throughout the forties–and the last
volume of which was almost ready for press by the time of my arrest.
I found a job–teaching English to a group of adults in Auteuil. Then a
school for boys employed me for a couple of winters. Now and then I took
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advantage of the acquaintances I had formed among social workers and
psychotherapists to visit in their company various institutions, such as
orphanages and reform schools, where pale pubescent girls with matted
eyelashes could be stared at in perfect impunity remindful of that granted
one in dreams.
Now I wish to introduce the following idea. Between the age limits of
nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers,
twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not
human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose
to designate as “nymphets.”
It will be marked that I substitute time terms for spatial ones. In
fact, I would have the reader see “nine” and “fourteen” as the
boundaries–the mirrory beaches and rosy rocks–of an enchanted island
haunted by those nymphets of mine and surrounded by a vast, misty sea.
Between those age limits, are all girl-children nymphets? Of course not.
Otherwise, we who are in the know, we lone voyagers, we nympholepts, would
have long gone insane. Neither are good looks any criterion; and vulgarity,
or at least what a given community terms so, does not necessarily impair
certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty,
soul-shattering, insidious charm that separates the nymphet from such
coevals of hers as are incomparably more dependent on the spatial world of
synchronous phenomena than on that intangible island of entranced time where
Lolita plays with her likes. Within the same age limits the number of true
nymphets is trickingly inferior to that of provisionally plain, or just
nice, or “cute,” or even “sweet” and “attractive,” ordinary, plumpish,
formless, cold-skinned, essentially human little girls, with tummies and
pigtails, who may or may not turn into adults of great beauty (look at the
ugly dumplings in black stockings and white hats that are metamorphosed into
stunning stars of the screen). A normal man given a group photograph of
school girls or Girl Scouts and asked to point out the comeliest one will
not necessarily choose the nymphet among them. You have to be an artist and
a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in
your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle
spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once,
by ineffable signs–the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the
slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and
tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate–the little deadly demon among the
wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious
herself of her fantastic power.
Furthermore, since the idea of time plays such a magic part in the
matter, the student should not be surprised to learn that there must be a
gap of several years, never less than ten I should say, generally thirty or
forty, and as many as ninety in a few known cases, between maiden and man to
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enable the latter to come under a nymphet’s spell. It is a question of focal
adjustment, of a certain distance that the inner eye thrills to surmount,
and a certain contrast that the mind perceives with a gasp of perverse
delight. When I was a child and she was a child, my little Annabel was no
nymphet to me; I was her equal, a faunlet in my own right, on that same
enchanted island of time; but today, in September 1952, after twenty-nine
years have elapsed, I think I can distinguish in her the initial fateful elf
in my life. We loved each other with a premature love, marked by a
fierceness that so often destroys adult lives. I was a strong lad and
survived; but the poison was in the wound, and the wound remained ever open,
and soon I found myself maturing amid a civilization which allows a man of
twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen but not a girl of twelve.
No wonder, then, that my adult life during the European period of my
existence proved monstrously twofold. Overtly, I had so-called normal
relationships with a number of terrestrial women having pumpkins or pears
for breasts; inly, I was consumed by a hell furnace of localized lust for
every passing nymphet whom as a law-abiding poltroon I never dared approach.
The human females I was allowed to wield were but palliative agents. I am
ready to believe that the sensations I derived from natural fornication were
much the same as those known to normal big males consorting with their
normal big mates in that routine rhythm which shakes the world. The trouble
was that those gentlemen had not, and I had, caught glimpses of an
incomparably more poignant bliss. The dimmest of my pollutive dreams was a
thousand times more dazzling than all the adultery the most virile writer of
genius or the most talented impotent might imagine. My world was split. I
was aware of not one but two sexes, neither of which was mine; both would be
termed female by the anatomist. But to me, through the prism of my senses,
“they were as different as mist and mast.” All this I rationalize now. In my
twenties and early thirties, I did not understand my throes quite so
clearly. While my body knew what it craved for, my mind rejected my body’s
every plea. One moment I was ashamed and frightened, another recklessly
optimistic. Taboos strangulated me. Psychoanalysts wooed me with
pseudoliberations of pseudolibidoes. The fact that to me the only object of
amorous tremor were sisters of Annabel’s, her handmaids and girl-pages,
appeared to me at times as a forerunner of insanity. At other times I would
tell myself that it was all a question of attitude, that there was really
nothing wrong in being moved to distraction by girl-children. Let me remind
my reader that in England, with the passage of the Children and Young Person
Act in 1933, the term “girl-child” is defined as “a girl who is over eight
but under fourteen years” (after that, from fourteen to seventeen, the
statutory definition is “young person”). In Massachusetts, U.S., on the
other hand, a “wayward child” is, technically, one “between seven and
seventeen years of age” (who, moreover, habitually associates with vicious
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or immoral persons). Hugh Broughton, a writer of controversy in the reign of
James the First, has proved that Rahab was a harlot at ten years of age.
This is all very interesting, and I daresay you see me already frothing at
the mouth in a fit; but no, I am not; I am just winking happy thoughts into
a little tiddle cup. Here are some more pictures. Here is Virgil who could
the nymphet sing in a single tone, but probably preferred a lad’s perineum.
Here are two of King Akhnaten’s and Queen Nefertiti’s pre-nubile Nile
daughters (that royal couple had a litter of six), wearing nothing but many
necklaces of bright beads, relaxed on cushions, intact after three thousand
years, with their soft brown puppybodies, cropped hair and long ebony eyes.
Here are some brides of ten compelled to seat themselves on the fascinum,
the virile ivory in the temples of classical scholarship. Marriage and
cohabitation before the age of puberty are still not uncommon in certain
East Indian provinces. Lepcha old men of eighty copulate with girls of
eight, and nobody minds. After all, Dante fell madly in love with Beatrice
when she was nine, a sparkling girleen, painted and lovely, and bejeweled,
in a crimson frock, and this was in 1274, in Florence, at a private feast in
the merry month of May. And when Petrarch fell madly in love with his
Laureen, she was a fair-haired nymphet of twelve running in the wind, in the
pollen and dust, a flower in flight, in the beautiful plain as descried from
the hills of Vaucluse.
But let us be prim and civilized. Humbert Humbert tried hard to be
good. Really and truly, he id. He had the utmost respect for ordinary
children, with their purity and vulnerability, and under no circumstances
would he have interfered with the innocence of a child, if there was the
least risk of a row. But how his heart beat when, among the innocent throng,
he espied a demon child, “enfant charmante et fourbe,” dim eyes,
bright lips, ten years in jail if you only show her you are looking at her.
So life went. Humbert was perfectly capable of intercourse with Eve, but it
was Lilith he longed for. The bud-stage of breast development appears early
(10.7 years) in the sequence of somatic changes accompanying pubescence. And
the next maturational item available is the first appearance of pigmented
pubic hair (11.2 years). My little cup brims with tiddles.
A shipwreck. An atoll. Alone with a drowned passenger’s shivering
child. Darling, this is only a game! How marvelous were my fancied
adventures as I sat on a hard park bench pretending to be immersed in a
trembling book. Around the quiet scholar, nymphets played freely, as if he
were a familiar statue or part of an old tree’s shadow and sheen. Once a
perfect little beauty in a tartan frock, with a clatter put her heavily
armed foot near me upon the bench to dip her slim bare arms into me and
righten the strap of her roller skate, and I dissolved in the sun, with my
book for fig leaf, as her auburn ringlets fell all over her skinned knee,
and the shadow of leaves I shared pulsated and melted on her radiant limb
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next to my chameleonic cheek. Another time a red-haired school girl hung
over me in the metro, and a revelation of axillary russet I obtained
remained in my blood for weeks. I could list a great number of these
one-sided diminutive romances. Some of them ended in a rich flavor of hell.
It happened for instance that from my balcony I would notice a lighted
window across the street and what looked like a nymphet in the act of
undressing before a co-operative mirror. Thus isolated, thus removed, the
vision acquired an especially keen charm that made me race with all speed
toward my lone gratification. But abruptly, fiendishly, the tender pattern
of nudity I had adored would be transformed into the disgusting lamp-lit
bare arm of a man in his underclothes reading his paper by the open window
in the hot, damp, hopeless summer night.
Rope-skipping, hopscotch. That old woman in black who sat down next to
me on my bench, on my rack of joy (a nymphet was groping under me for a lost
marble), and asked if I had stomachache, the insolent hag. Ah, leave me
alone in my pubescent park, in my mossy garden. Let them play around me
forever. Never grow up.
6
A propos: I have often wondered what became of those nymphets later? In
this wrought-iron would of criss-cross cause and effect, could it be that
the hidden throb I stole from them did not affect their future? I had
possessed her–and she never knew it. All right. But would it not tell
sometime later? Had I not somehow tampered with her fate by involving her
image in my voluptas? Oh, it was, and remains, a source of great and
terrible wonder.
I learned, however, what they looked like, those lovely, maddening,
thin-armed nymphets, when they grew up. I remember walking along an animated
street on a gray spring afternoon somewhere near the Madeleine. A short slim
girl passed me at a rapid, high-heeled, tripping step, we glanced back at
the same moment, she stopped and I accosted her. She came hardly up to my
chest hair and had the kind of dimpled round little face French girls so
often have, and I liked her long lashes and tight-fitting tailored dress
sheathing in pearl-gray her young body which still retained–and that was
the nymphic echo, the chill of delight, the leap in my loins–a childish
something mingling with the professional fretillement of her small
agile rump. I asked her price, and she promptly replied with melodious
silvery precision (a bird, a very bird!) “Cent.” I tried to haggle
but she saw the awful lone longing in my lowered eyes, directed so far down
at her round forehead and rudimentary hat (a band, a posy); and with one
beat of her lashes: “Tant pis,” she said, and made as if to move
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away. Perhaps only three years earlier I might have seen her coming home
from school! That evocation settled the matter. She led me up the usual
steep stairs, with the usual bell clearing the way for the monsieur
who might not care to meet another monsieur, on the mournful climb to
the abject room, all bed and bidet. As usual, she asked at once for
her petit cadeau, and as usual I asked her name (Monique) and her age
(eighteen). I was pretty well acquainted with the banal way of
streetwalkers. They all answer “dix-huit”–a trim twitter, a note of
finality and wistful deceit which they emit up to ten times per day, the
poor little creatures. But in Monique’s case there could be no doubt she
was, if anything, adding one or two years to her age. This I deduced from
many details of her compact, neat, curiously immature body. Having shed her
clothes with fascinating rapidity, she stood for a moment partly wrapped in
the dingy gauze of the window curtain listening with infantile pleasure, as
pat as pat could be, to an organ-grinder in the dust-brimming courtyard
below. When I examined her small hands and drew her attention to their
grubby fingernails, she said with a naive frown “Oui, ce n’est pas
bien,” and went to the wash-basin, but I said it did not matter, did not
matter at all. With her brown bobbed hair, luminous gray eyes and pale skin,
she looked perfectly charming. Her hips were no bigger than those of a
squatting lad; in fact, I do not hesitate to say (and indeed this is the
reason why I linger gratefully in that gauze-gray room of memory with little
Monique) that among the eighty or so grues I had had operate upon me,
she was the only one that gave me a pang of genuine pleasure. “Il ètait
malin, celui qui a inventè ce truc-la,” she commented amiably, and got
back into her clothes with the same high-style speed.
I asked for another, more elaborate, assignment later the same evening,
and she said she would meet me at the corner cafe at nine, and swore she had
never pose un lapin in all her young life. We returned to the same
room, and I could not help saying how very pretty she was to which she
answered demurely: “Tu es bien gentil de dire ca” and then, noticing
what I noticed too in the mirror reflecting our small Eden–the dreadful
grimace of clenched-teeth tenderness that distorted my mouth–dutiful little
Monique (oh, she had been a nymphet, all right!) wanted to know if she
should remove the layer of red from her lips avant qu’on se couche in
case I planned to kiss her. Of course, I planned it. I let myself go with
her more completely than I had with any young lady before, and my last
vision that night of long-lashed Monique is touched up with a gaiety that I
find seldom associated with any event in my humiliating, sordid, taciturn
love life. She looked tremendously pleased with the bonus of fifty I gave
her as she trotted out into the April night drizzle with Humbert Humbert
lumbering in her narrow wake. Stopping before a window display she said with
great gusto: “Je vais m’acheter des bas!” and never may I forget the
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way her Parisian childish lips exploded on “bas,” pronouncing it with
an appetite that all but changed the “a” into a brief buoyant bursting “o”
as in “bot”.
I had a date with her next day at 2.15 P.M. in my own rooms, but it was
less successful, she seemed to have grown less juvenile, more of a woman
overnight. A cold I caught from her led me to cancel a fourth assignment,
nor was I sorry to break an emotional series that threatened to burden me
with heart-rending fantasies and peter out in dull disappointment. So let
her remain, sleek, slender Monique, as she was for a minute or two: a
delinquent nymphet shining through the matter-of-fact young whore.
My brief acquaintance with her started a train of thought that may seem
pretty obvious to the reader who knows the ropes. An advertisement in a lewd
magazine landed me, one brave day, in the office of a Mlle Edith who began
by offering me to choose a kindred soul from a collection of rather formal
photographs in a rather soiled album (“Regardez-moi cette belle
brune!”. When I pushed the album away and somehow managed to blurt out
my criminal craving, she looked as if about to show me the door; however,
after asking me what price I was prepared to disburse, she condescended to
put me in touch with a person qui pourrait arranger la chose. Next
day, an asthmatic woman, coarsely painted, garrulous, garlicky, with an
almost farcical Provenãal accent and a black mustache above a purple lip,
took me to what was apparently her own domicile, and there, after
explosively kissing the bunched tips of her fat fingers to signify the
delectable rosebud quality of her merchandise, she theatrically drew aside a
curtain to reveal what I judged was that part of the room where a large and
unfastidious family usually slept. It was now empty save for a monstrously
plump, sallow, repulsively plain girl of at least fifteen with red-ribboned
thick black braids who sat on a chair perfunctorily nursing a bald doll.
When I shook my head and tried to shuffle out of the trap, the woman,
talking fast, began removing the dingy woolen jersey from the young
giantess’ torso; then, seeing my determination to leave, she demanded son
argent. A door at the end of the room was opened, and two men who had
been dining in the kitchen joined in the squabble. They were misshapen,
bare-necked, very swarthy and one of them wore dark glasses. A small boy and
a begrimed, bowlegged toddler lurked behind them. With the insolent logic of
a nightmare, the enraged procuress, indicating the man in glasses, said he
had served in the police, lui, so that I had better do as I was told.
I went up to Marie–for that was her stellar name–who by then had quietly
transferred her heavy haunches to a stool at the kitchen table and resumed
her interrupted soup while the toddler picked up the doll. With a surge of
pity dramatizing my idiotic gesture, I thrust a banknote into her
indifferent hand. She surrendered my gift to the ex-detective, whereupon I
was suffered to leave.
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7
I do not know if the pimp’s album may not have been another link in
the daisy-chain; but soon after, for my own safety, I decided to marry. It
occurred to me that regular hours, home-cooked meals, all the conventions of
marriage, the prophylactic routine of its bedroom activities and, who knows,
the eventual flowering of certain moral values, of certain spiritual
substitutes, might help me, if not to purge myself of my degrading and
dangerous desires, at least to keep them under pacific control. A little
money that had come my way after my father’s death (nothing very grand–the
Mirana had been sold long before), in addition to my striking if somewhat
brutal good looks, allowed me to enter upon my quest with equanimity. After
considerable deliberation, my choice fell on the daughter of a Polish
doctor: the good man happened to be treating me for spells of dizziness and
tachycardia. We played chess; his daughter watched me from behind her easel,
and inserted eyes or knuckles borrowed from me into the cubistic trash that
accomplished misses then painted instead of lilacs and lambs. Let me repeat
with quiet force: I was, and still am, despite mes malheurs, an
exceptionally handsome male; slow-moving, tall, with soft dark hair and a
gloomy but all the more seductive cast of demeanor. Exceptional virility
often reflects in the subject’s displayable features a sullen and congested
something that pertains to what he has to conceal. And this was my case.
Well did I know, alas, that I could obtain at the snap of my fingers any
adult female I chose; in fact, it had become quite a habit with me of not
being too attentive to women lest they come toppling, bloodripe, into my
cold lap. Had I been a franãais moyen with a taste for flashy ladies,
I might have easily found, among the many crazed beauties that lashed my
grim rock, creatures far more fascinating than Valeria. My choice, however,
was prompted by considerations whose essence was, as I realized too late, a
piteous compromise. All of which goes to show how dreadfully stupid poor
Humbert always was in matters of sex.
8
Although I told myself I was looking merely for a soothing presence, a
glorified pot-au-feu, an animated merkin, what really attracted me to
Valeria was the imitation she gave of a little girl. She gave it not because
she had divined something about me; it was just her style–and I fell for
it. Actually, she was at least in her late twenties (I never established her
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exact age for even her passport lied) and had mislaid her virginity under
circumstances that changed with her reminiscent moods. I, on my part, was as
naive as only a pervert can be. She looked fluffy and frolicsome, dressed
a la gamine, showed a generous amount of smooth leg, knew how to
stress the white of a bare instep by the black of a velvet slipper, and
pouted, and dimpled, and romped, and dirndled, and shook her short curly
blond hair in the cutest and tritest fashion imaginable.
After a brief ceremony at the mairie, I tool her to the new
apartment I had rented and, somewhat to her surprise, had her wear, before I
touched her, a girl’s plain nightshirt that I had managed to filch from the
linen closet of an orphanage. I derived some fun from that nuptial night and
had the idiot in hysterics by sunrise. But reality soon asserted itself. The
bleached curl revealed its melanic root; the down turned to prickles on a
shaved shin; the mobile moist mouth, no matter how I stuffed it with love,
disclosed ignominiously its resemblance to the corresponding part in a
treasured portrait of her toadlike dead mama; and presently, instead of a
pale little gutter girl, Humbert Humbert had on his hands a large, puffy,
short-legged, big-breasted and practically brainless baba.
This state of affairs lasted from 1935 to 1939. Her only asset was a
muted nature which did help to produce an odd sense of comfort in our small
squalid flat: two rooms, a hazy view in one window, a brick wall in the
other, a tiny kitchen, a shoe-shaped bath tub, within which I felt like
Marat but with no white-necked maiden to stab me. We had quite a few cozy
evenings together, she deep in her Paris-Soir, I working at a rickety
table. We went to movies, bicycle races and boxing matches. I appealed to
her stale flesh very seldom, only in cases of great urgency and despair. The
grocer opposite had a little daughter whose shadow drove me mad; but with
Valeria’s help I did find after all some legal outlets to my fantastic
predicament. As to cooking, we tacitly dismissed the pot-au-feu and
had most of our meals at a crowded place in rue Bonaparte where there were
wine stains on the table cloth and a good deal of foreign babble. And next
door, an art dealer displayed in his cluttered window a splendid,
flamboyant, green, red, golden and inky blue, ancient American estampe–a
locomotive with a gigantic smokestack, great baroque lamps and a tremendous
cowcatcher, hauling its mauve coaches through the stormy prairie night and
mixing a lot of spark-studded black smoke with the furry thunder clouds.
These burst. In the summer of 1939 mon oncle d’Amèrique died
bequeathing me an annual income of a few thousand dollars on condition I
came to live in the States and showed some interest in his business. This
prospect was most welcome to me. I felt my life needed a shake-up. There was
another thing, too: moth holes had appeared in the plush of matrimonial
comfort. During the last weeks I had kept noticing that my fat Valeria was
not her usual self; had acquired a queer restlessness; even showed something
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like irritation at times, which was quite out of keeping with the stock
character she was supposed to impersonate. When I informed her we were
shortly to sail for New York, she looked distressed and bewildered. There
were some tedious difficulties with her papers. She had a Nansen, or better
say Nonsense, passport which for some reason a share in her husband’s solid
Swiss citizenship could not easily transcend; and I decided it was the
necessity of queuing in the prèfecture, and other formalities, that
had made her so listless, despite my patiently describing to her America,
the country of rosy children and great trees, where life would be such an
improvement on dull dingy Paris.
We were coming out of some office building one morning, with her papers
almost in order, when Valeria, as she waddled by my side, began to shake her
poodle head vigorously without saying a word. I let her go on for a while
and then asked if she thought she had something inside. She answered (I
translate from her French which was, I imagine, a translation in its turn of
some Slavic platitude): “There is another man in my life.”
Now, these are ugly words for a husband to hear. They dazed me, I
confess. To beat her up in the street, there and then, as an honest
vulgarian might have done, was not feasible. Years of secret sufferings had
taught me superhuman self-control. So I ushered her into a taxi which had
been invitingly creeping along the curb for some time, and in this
comparative privacy I quietly suggested she comment her wild talk. A
mounting fury was suffocating me–not because I had any particular fondness
for that figure of fun, Mme Humbert, but because matters of legal and
illegal conjunction were for me alone to decide, and here she was, Valeria,
the comedy wife, brazenly preparing to dispose in her own way of my comfort
and fate. I demanded her lover’s name. I repeated my question; but she kept
up a burlesque babble, discoursing on her unhappiness with me and announcing
plans for an immediate divorce. “Mais qui est-ce?” I shouted at last,
striking her on the knee with my fist; and she, without even wincing, stared
at me as if the answer were too simple for words, then gave a quick shrug
and pointed at the thick neck of the taxi driver. He pulled up at a small
cafè and introduced himself. I do not remember his ridiculous name but after
all those years I still see him quite clearly–a stocky White Russian
ex-colonel with a bushy mustache and a crew cut; there were thousands of
them plying that fool’s trade in Paris. We sat down at a table; the Tsarist
ordered wine, and Valeria, after applying a wet napkin to her knee, went on
talking–into me rather than to me; she poured words into this
dignified receptacle with a volubility I had never suspected she had in her.
And every now and then she would volley a burst of Slavic at her stolid
lover. The situation was preposterous and became even more so when the
taxi-colonel, stopping Valeria with a possessive smile, began to unfold
his views and plans. With an atrocious accent to his careful French,
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he delineated the world of love and work into which he proposed to enter
hand in hand with his child-wife Valeria. She by now was preening herself,
between him and me, rouging her pursed lips, tripling her chin to pick at
her blouse-bosom and so forth, and he spoke of her as if she were absent,
and also as if she were a kind of little ward that was in the act of being
transferred, for her own good, from one wise guardian to another even wiser
one; and although my helpless wrath may have exaggerated and disfigured
certain impressions, I can swear that he actually consulted me on such
things as her diet, her periods, her wardrobe and the books she had read or
should read. “I think,” – he said, “She will like Jean Christophe?”
Oh, he was quite a scholar, Mr. Taxovich.
I put an end to this gibberish by suggesting Valeria pack up her few
belongings immediately, upon which the platitudinous colonel gallantly
offered to carry them into the car. Reverting to his professional state, he
drove the Humberts to their residence and all the way Valeria talked, and
Humbert the Terrible deliberated with Humbert the Small whether Humbert
Humbert should kill her or her lover, or both, or neither. I remember once
handling an automatic belonging to a fellow student, in the days (I have not
spoken of them, I think, but never mind) when I toyed with the idea of
enjoying his little sister, a most diaphanous nymphet with a black hair bow,
and then shooting myself. I now wondered if Valechka (as the colonel called
her) was really worth shooting, or strangling, or drowning. She had very
vulnerable legs, and I decided I would limit myself to hurting her very
horribly as soon as we were alone.
But we never were. Valechka–by now shedding torrents of tears tinged
with the mess of her rainbow make-up,–started to fill anyhow a trunk, and
two suitcases, and a bursting carton, and visions of putting on my mountain
boots and taking a running kick at her rump were of course impossible to put
into execution with the cursed colonel hovering around all the time. I
cannot say he behaved insolently or anything like that; on the contrary, he
displayed, as a small sideshow in the theatricals I had been inveigled in, a
discreet old-world civility, punctuating his movements with all sorts of
mispronounced apologies (j’ai demande pardonne–excuse me–est-ce
que j’ai puis–may I–and so forth), and turning away tactfully when
Valechka took down with a flourish her pink panties from the clothesline
above the tub; but he seemed to be all over the place at once, le
gredin, agreeing his frame with the anatomy of the flat, reading in my
chair my newspaper, untying a knotted string, rolling a cigarette, counting
the teaspoons, visiting the bathroom, helping his moll to wrap up the
electric fan her father had given her, and carrying streetward her luggage.
I sat with arms folded, one hip on the window sill, dying of hate and
boredom. At last both were out of the quivering apartment–the vibration of
the door I had slammed after them still rang in my every nerve, a poor
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substitute for the backhand slap with which I ought to have hit her across
the cheekbone according to the rules of the movies. Clumsily playing my
part, I stomped to the bathroom to check if they had taken my English toilet
water; they had not; but I noticed with a spasm of fierce disgust that the
former Counselor of the Tsar, after thoroughly easing his bladder, had not
flushed the toilet. That solemn pool of alien urine with a soggy, tawny
cigarette butt disintegrating in it struck me as a crowning insult, and I
wildly looked around for a weapon. Actually I daresay it was nothing but
middle-class Russian courtesy (with an oriental tang, perhaps) that had
prompted the good colonel (Maximovich! his name suddenly taxies back to me),
a very formal person as they all are, to muffle his private need in decorous
silence so as not to underscore the small size of his host’s domicile with
the rush of a gross cascade on top of his own hushed trickle. But this did
not enter my mind at the moment, as groaning with rage I ransacked the
kitchen for something better than a broom. Then, canceling my search, I
dashed out of the house with the heroic decision of attacking him
barefisted; despite my natural vigor, I am no pugilist, while the short but
broad-shouldered Maximovich seemed made of pig iron. The void of the street,
revealing nothing of my wife’s departure except a rhinestone button that she
had dropped in the mud after preserving it for three unnecessary years in a
broken box, may have spared me a bloody nose. But no matter. I had my little
revenge in due time. A man from Pasadena told me one day that Mrs.
Maximovich nèe Zborovski had died in childbirth around 1945; the couple had
somehow got over to California and had been used there, for an excellent
salary, in a year-long experiment conducted by a distinguished American
ethnologist. The experiment dealt with human and racial reactions to a diet
of bananas and dates in a constant position on all fours. My informant, a
doctor, swore he had seen with his own eyes obese Valechka and her colonel,
by then gray-haired and also quite corpulent, diligently crawling about the
well-swept floors of a brightly lit set of rooms (fruit in one, water in
another, mats in a third and so on) in the company of several other hired
quadrupeds, selected from indigent and helpless groups. I tried to find the
results of these tests in the Review of Anthropology; but they appear
not to have been published yet. These scientific products take of course
some time to fructuate. I hope they will be illustrated with photographs
when they do get printed, although it is not very likely that a prison
library will harbor such erudite works. The one to which I am restricted
these days, despite my lawyer’s favors, is a good example of the inane
eclecticism governing the selection of books in prison libraries. They have
the Bible, of course, and Dickens (an ancient set, N.Y., G.W. Dillingham,
Publisher, MDCCCLXXXVII); and the Children’s Encyclopedia (with some
nice photographs of sunshine-haired Girl Scouts in shorts), and A Murder
Is Announced by Agatha Christie; but they also have such coruscating
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trifles as A vagabond in Italy by Percy Elphinstone, author of
Venice Revisited, Boston, 1868, and a comparatively recent (1946)
Who’s Who in the Limelight–actors, producers, playwrights, and shots
of static scenes. In looking through the latter volume, I was treated last
night to one of those dazzling coincidences that logicians loathe and poets
love. I transcribe most of the page:
Pym, Roland. Born in Lundy, Mass., 1922. Received stage training at
Elsinore Playhouse, Derby, N.Y. Made debut in Sunburst. Among his
many appearances are Two Blocks from Here, The Girl in Green, Scrambled
Husbands, The Strange Mushroom, Touch and Go, John Lovely, I Was Dreaming of
You.
Quilty, Clare, American dramatist. Born in Ocean City, N.J., 1911.
Educated at Columbia University. Started on a commercial career but turned
to playwriting. Author of The Little Nymph, The Lady Who Loved
Lightning (in collaboration with Vivian Darkbloom), Dark Age, The
strange Mushroom, Fatherly Love, and others. His many plays for children
are notable. Little Nymph (1940) traveled 14,000 miles and played 280
performances on the road during the winter before ending in New York.
Hobbies: fast cars, photography, pets.
Quine, Dolores. Born in 1882, in Dayton, Ohio. Studied for stage at
American Academy. First played in Ottawa in 1900. Made New York debut in
1904 in Never Talk to Strangers. Has disappeared since in [a list of
some thirty plays follows].
How the look of my dear love’s name even affixed to some old hag of an
actress, still makes me rock with helpless pain! Perhaps, she might have
been an actress too. Born 1935. Appeared (I notice the slip of my pen in the
preceding paragraph, but please do not correct it, Clarence) in The
Murdered Playwright. Quine the Swine. Guilty of killing Quilty. Oh, my
Lolita, I have only words to play with!
9
Divorce proceedings delayed my voyage, and the gloom of yet another
World War had settled upon the globe when, after a winter of ennui and
pneumonia in Portugal, I at last reached the States. In New York I eagerly
accepted the soft job fate offered me: it consisted mainly of thinking up
and editing perfume ads. I welcomed its desultory character and
pseudoliterary aspects, attending to it whenever I had nothing better to do.
On the other hand, I was urged by a war-time university in New York to
complete my comparative history of French literature for English-speaking
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students. The first volume took me a couple of years during which I put in
seldom less than fifteen hours of work daily. As I look back on those days,
I see them divided tidily into ample light and narrow shade: the light
pertaining to the solace of research in palatial libraries, the shade to my
excruciating desires and insomnias of which enough has been said. Knowing me
by now, the reader can easily imagine how dusty and hot I got, trying to
catch a glimpse of nymphets (alas, always remote) playing in Central Park,
and how repulsed I was by the glitter of deodorized career girls that a gay
dog in one of the offices kept unloading upon me. Let us skip all that. A
dreadful breakdown sent me to a sanatorium for more than a year; I went back
to my work–only to be hospitalized again.
Robust outdoor life seemed to promise me some relief. One of my
favorite doctors, a charming cynical chap with a little brown beard, had a
brother, and this brother was about to lead an expedition into arctic
Canada. I was attached to it as a “recorder of psychic reactions.” With two
young botanists and an old carpenter I shared now and then (never very
successfully) the favors of one of our nutritionists, a Dr. Anita
Johnson–who was soon flown back, I am glad to say. I had little notion of
what object the expedition was pursuing. Judging by the number of
meteorologists upon it, we may have been tracking to its lair (somewhere on
Prince of Wales’ Island, I understand) the wandering and wobbly north
magnetic pole. One group, jointly with the Canadians, established a weather
station on Pierre Point in Melville Sound. Another group, equally misguided,
collected plankton. A third studied tuberculosis in the tundra. Bert, a film
photographer–an insecure fellow with whom at one time I was made to partake
in a good deal of menial work (he, too, had some psychic
troubles)–maintained that the big men on our team, the real leaders we
never saw, were mainly engaged in checking the influence of climatic
amelioration on the coats of the arctic fox.
We lived in prefabricated timber cabins amid a Pre-Cambrian world of
granite. We had heaps of supplies–the Reader’s Digest, an ice cream
mixer, chemical toilets, paper caps for Christmas. My health improved
wonderfully in spite or because of all the fantastic blankness and boredom.
Surrounded by such dejected vegetation as willow scrub and lichens;
permeated, and, I suppose, cleansed by a whistling gale; seated on a boulder
under a completely translucent sky (through which, however, nothing of
importance showed), I felt curiously aloof from my own self. No temptations
maddened me. The plump, glossy little Eskimo girls with their fish smell,
hideous raven hair and guinea pig faces, evoked even less desire in me than
Dr. Johnson had. Nymphets do not occur in polar regions.
I left my betters the task of analyzing glacial drifts, drumlins, and
gremlins, and kremlins, and for a time tried to jot down what I fondly
thought were “reactions” (I noticed, for instance, that dreams under the
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midnight sun tended to be highly colored, and this my friend the
photographer confirmed). I was also supposed to quiz my various companions
on a number of important matters, such as nostalgia, fear of unknown
animals, food-fantasies, nocturnal emissions, hobbies, choice of radio
programs, changes in outlook and so forth. Everybody got so fed up with this
that I soon dropped the project completely, and only toward the end of my
twenty months of cold labor (as one of the botanists jocosely put it)
concocted a perfectly spurious and very racy report that the reader will
find published in he Annals of Adult Psychophysics for 1945 or 1946,
as well as in the issue of Arctic Explorations devoted to that
particular expedition; which, in conclusion, was not really concerned with
Victoria Island copper or anything like that, as I learned later from my
genial doctor; for the nature of its real purpose was what is termed
“hush-hush,” and so let me add merely that whatever it was, that purpose was
admirably achieved.
The reader will regret to learn that soon after my return to
civilization I had another bout with insanity (if to melancholia and a sense
of insufferable oppression that cruel term must be applied). I owe my
complete restoration to a discovery I made while being treated at that
particular very expensive sanatorium. I discovered there was an endless
source of robust enjoyment in trifling with psychiatrists: cunningly leading
them on; never letting them see that you know all the tricks of the trade;
inventing for them elaborate dreams, pure classics in style (which make
them, the dream-extortionists, dream and wake up shrieking); teasing
them with fake “primal scenes”; and never allowing them the slightest
glimpse of one’s real sexual predicament. By bribing a nurse I won access to
some files and discovered, with glee, cards calling me “potentially
homosexual” and “totally impotent.” The sport was so excellent, its
results–in my case–so ruddy that I stayed on for a whole month
after I was quite well (sleeping admirably and eating like a schoolgirl).
And then I added another week just for the pleasure of taking on a powerful
newcomer, a displaced (and, surely, deranged) celebrity, known for his knack
of making patients believe they had witnessed their own conception.
10
Upon signing out, I cast around for some place in the New England
countryside or sleepy small town (elms, white church) where I could spend a
studious summer subsisting on a compact boxful of notes I had accumulated
and bathing in some nearby lake. My work had begun to interest me again–I
mean my scholarly exertions; the other thing, my active participation in my
uncle’s posthumous perfumes, had by then been cut down to a minimum.
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One of his former employees, the scion of a distinguished family,
suggested I spend a few months in the residence of his impoverished cousins,
a Mr. McCoo, retired, and his wife, who wanted to let their upper story
where a late aunt had delicately dwelt. He said they had two little
daughters, one a baby, the other a girl of twelve, and a beautiful garden,
not far from a beautiful lake, and I said it sounded perfectly perfect.
I exchanged letters with these people, satisfying them I was
housebroken, and spent a fantastic night on the train, imagining in all
possible detail the enigmatic nymphet I would coach in French and fondle in
Humbertish. Nobody met me at the toy station where I alighted with my new
expensive bag, and nobody answered the telephone; eventually, however, a
distraught McCoo in wet clothes turned up at the only hotel of
green-and-pink Ramsdale with the news that his house had just burned
down–possibly, owing to the synchronous conflagration that had been raging
all night in my veins. His family, he said, had fled to a farm he owned, and
had taken the car, but a friend of his wife’s, a grand person, Mrs. Haze of
342 Lawn Street, offered to accommodate me. A lady who lived opposite Mrs.
Haze’s had lent McCoo her limousine, a marvelously old-fashioned,
square-topped affair, manned by a cheerful Negro. Now, since the only reason
for my coming at all had vanished, the aforesaid arrangement seemed
preposterous. All right, his house would have to be completely rebuilt, so
what? Had he not insured it sufficiently? I was angry, disappointed and
bored, but being a polite European, could not refuse to be sent off to Lawn
Street in that funeral car, feeling that otherwise McCoo would devise an
even more elaborate means of getting rid of me. I saw him scamper away, and
my chauffeur shook his head with a soft chuckle. En route, I swore to myself
I would not dream of staying in Ramsdale under any circumstance but would
fly that very day to the Bermudas or the Bahamas or the Blazes.
Possibilities of sweetness on technicolor beaches had been trickling through
my spine for some time before, and McCoo’s cousin had, in fact, sharply
diverted that train of thought with his well-meaning but as it transpired
now absolutely inane suggestion.
Speaking of sharp turns: we almost ran over a meddlesome suburban dog
(one of those who like in wait for cars) as we swerved into Lawn Street. A
little further, the Haze house, a white-frame horror, appeared, looking
dingy and old, more gray than white–the kind of place you know will have a
rubber tube affixable to the tub faucet in lieu of shower. I tipped the
chauffeur and hoped he would immediately drive away so that I might double
back unnoticed to my hotel and bag; but the man merely crossed to the other
side of the street where an old lady was calling to him from her porch. What
could I do? I pressed the bell button.
A colored maid let me in–and left me standing on the mat while she
rushed back to the kitchen where something was burning that ought not to
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burn.
The front hall was graced with door chimes, a white-eyed wooden
thingamabob of commercial Mexican origin, and that banal darling of the arty
middle class, van Gogh’s “Arlèsienne.” A door ajar to the right afforded a
glimpse of a living room, with some more Mexican trash in a corner cabinet
and a striped sofa along the wall. There was a staircase at the end of the
hallway, and as I stood mopping my brow (only now did I realize how hot it
had been out-of-doors) and staring, to stare at something, at an old gray
tennis ball that lay on an oak chest, there came from the upper landing the
contralto voice of Mrs. Haze, who leaning over the banisters inquired
melodiously, “Is that Monsieur Humbert?” A bit of cigarette ash dropped from
there in addition. Presently, the lady herself–sandals, maroon slacks,
yellow silk blouse, squarish face, in that order–came down the steps, her
index finger still tapping upon her cigarette.
I think I had better describe her right away, to get it over with. The
poor lady was in her middle thirties, she had a shiny forehead, plucked
eyebrows and quite simple but not unattractive features of a type that may
be defined as a weak solution of Marlene Dietrich. Patting her bronze-brown
bun, she led me into the parlor and we talked for a minute about the McCoo
fire and the privilege of living in Ramsdale. Her very wide-set sea-green
eyes had a funny way of traveling all over you, carefully avoiding your own
eyes. Her smile was but a quizzical jerk of one eyebrow; and uncoiling
herself from the sofa as she talked, she kept making spasmodic dashes at
three ashtrays and the near fender (where lay the brown core of an apple);
whereupon she would sink back again, one leg folded under her. She was,
obviously, one of those women whose polished words may reflect a book club
or bridge club, or any other deadly conventionality, but never her soul;
women who are completely devoid of humor; women utterly indifferent at heart
to the dozen or so possible subjects of a parlor conversation, but very
particular about the rules of such conversations, through the sunny
cellophane of which not very appetizing frustrations can be readily
distinguished. I was perfectly aware that if by any wild chance I became her
lodger, she would methodically proceed to do in regard to me what taking a
lodger probably meant to her all along, and I would again be enmeshed in one
of those tedious affairs I knew so well.
But there was no question of my settling there. I could not be happy in
that type of household with bedraggled magazines on every chair and a kind
of horrible hybridization between the comedy of so-called “functional modern
furniture” and the tragedy of decrepit rockers and rickety lamp tables with
dead lamps. I was led upstairs, and to the left–into “my” room. I inspected
it through the mist of my utter rejection of it; but I did discern above
“my” bed Renè Prinet’s “Kreutzer Sonata.” And she called that servant maid’s
room a “semi-studio”! Let’s get out of here at once, I firmly said to myself
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as I pretended to deliberate over the absurdly, and ominously, low price
that my wistful hostess was asking for board and bed.
Old-world politeness, however, obliged me to go on with the ordeal. We
crossed the landing to the right side of the house (where “I and Lo have our
rooms”–Lo being presumably the maid), and the lodger-lover could hardly
conceal a shudder when he, a very fastidious male, was granted a preview of
the only bathroom, a tiny oblong between the landing and “Lo’s” room, with
limp wet things overhanging the dubious tub (the question mark of a hair
inside); and there were the expected coils of the rubber snake, and its
complement–a pinkish cozy, coyly covering the toilet lid.
“I see you are not too favorably impressed,” said the lady letting her
hand rest for a moment upon my sleeve: she combined a cool forwardness–the
overflow of what I think is called “poise”–with a shyness and sadness that
caused her detached way of selecting her words to seem as unnatural as the
intonation of a professor of “speech.” “This is not a neat household, I
confess,” the doomed ear continued, “but I assure you [she looked at my
lips], you will be very comfortable, very comfortable, indeed. Let me show
you the garden” (the last more brightly, with a kind of winsome toss of the
voice).
Reluctantly I followed her downstairs again; then through the kitchen
at the end of the hall, on the right side of the house–the side where also
the dining room and the parlor were (under “my” room, on the left, there was
nothing but a garage). In the kitchen, the Negro maid, a plump youngish
woman, said, as she took her large glossy black purse from the knob of the
door leading to the back porch: “I’ll go now, Mrs. Haze.” “Yes, Louise,”
answered Mrs. Haze with a sigh. “I’ll settle with you Friday.” We passed on
to a small pantry and entered the dining room, parallel to the parlor we had
already admired. I noticed a white sock on the floor. With a deprecatory
grunt, Mrs. Haze stooped without stopping and threw it into a closet next to
the pantry. We cursorily inspected a mahogany table with a fruit vase in the
middle, containing nothing but the still glistening stone of one plum. I
groped for the timetable I had in my pocket and surreptitiously fished it
out to look as soon as possible for a train. I was still walking behind Mrs.
Haze though the dining room when, beyond it, there came a sudden burst of
greenery–“the piazza,” sang out my leader, and then, without the least
warning, a blue sea-wave swelled under my heart and, from a mat in a pool of
sun, half-naked, kneeling, turning about on her knees, there was my Riviera
love peering at me over dark glasses.
It was the same child–the same frail, honey-hued shoulders, the same
silky supple bare back, the same chestnut head of hair. A polka-dotted black
kerchief tied around her chest hid from my aging ape eyes, but not from the
gaze of young memory, the juvenile breasts I had fondled one immortal day.
And, as if I were the fairy-tale nurse of some little princess (lost,
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kidnapped, discovered in gypsy rags through which her nakedness smiled at the
king and his hounds), I recognized the tiny dark-brown mole on her side.
With awe and delight (the king crying for joy, the trumpets blaring, the
nurse drunk) I saw again her lovely indrawn abdomen where my southbound
mouth had briefly paused; and those puerile hips on which I had kissed the
crenulated imprint left by the band of her shorts–that last mad immortal
day behind the “Roches Roses.” The twenty-five years I had lived since then,
tapered to a palpitating point, and vanished.
I find it most difficult to express with adequate force that flash,
that shiver, that impact of passionate recognition. In the course of the
sun-shot moment that my glance slithered over the kneeling child (her eyes
blinking over those stern dark spectacles–the little Herr Doktor who was to
cure me of all my aches) while I passed by her in my adult disguise (a great
big handsome hunk of movieland manhood), the vacuum of my soul managed to
suck in every detail of her bright beauty, and these I checked against the
features of my dead bride. A little later, of course, she, this
nouvelle, this Lolita, my Lolita, was to eclipse completely her
prototype. All I want to stress is that my discovery of her was a fatal
consequence of that “princedom by the sea” in my tortured past. Everything
between the two events was but a series of gropings and blunders, and false
rudiments of joy. Everything they shared made one of them.
I have no illusions, however. My judges will regard all this as a piece
of mummery on the part of a madman with a gross liking for the fruit
vert. Au fond, ãa m’est bien ègal. All I know is that while the
Haze woman and I went down the steps into the breathless garden, my knees
were like reflections of knees in rippling water, and my lips were like
sand, and–
“That was my Lo,” she said, “and these are my lilies.”
“Yes,” I said, “yes. They are beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.”
11
Exhibit number two is a pocket diary bound in black imitation leather,
with a golden year, 1947, en escalier, in its upper left-hand corner.
I speak of this neat product of the Blank Blank Co., Blankton, Mass., as if
it were really before me. Actually, it was destroyed five years go and what
we examine now (by courtesy of a photographic memory) is but its brief
materialization, a puny unfledged phoenix.
I remember the thing so exactly because I wrote it really twice. First
I jotted down each entry in pencil (with many erasures and corrections) on
the leaves of what is commercially known as a “typewriter tablet”; then, I
copied it out with obvious abbreviations in my smallest, most satanic, hand
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in the little black book just mentioned.
May 30 is a Fast Day by Proclamation in New Hampshire but not in the
Carolinas. That day an epidemic of “abdominal flu” (whatever that is) forced
Ramsdale to close its schools for the summer. The reader may check the
weather data in the Ramsdale Journal for 1947. A few days before that
I moved into the Haze house, and the little diary which I now propose to
reel off (much as a spy delivers by heart the contents of the note he
swallowed) covers most of June.
Thursday. Very warm day. From a vantage point (bathroom window)
saw Dolores taking things off a clothesline in the apple-green light behind
the house. Strolled out. She wore a plaid shirt, blue jeans and sneakers.
Every movement she made in the dappled sun plucked at the most secret and
sensitive chord of my abject body. After a while she sat down next to me on
the lower step of the back porch and began to pick up the pebbles between
her feet–pebbles, my God, then a curled bit of milk-bottle glass resembling
a snarling lip–and chuck them at a can. Ping. You can’t a second
time–you can’t hit it–oh, marvelous: tender and tanned, not the least
blemish. Sundaes cause acne. The excess of the oily substance called sebum
which nourishes the hair follicles of the skin creates, when too profuse, an
irritation that opens the way to infection. But nymphets do not have acne
although they gorge themselves on rich food. God, what agony, that silky
shimmer above her temple grading into bright brown hair. And the little bone
twitching at the side of her dust-powdered ankle. “The McCoo girl? Ginny
McCoo? Oh, she’s a fright. And mean. And lame. Nearly died of polio.” Ping.
The glistening tracery of down on her forearm. When she got up to take in
the wash, I had a chance of adoring from afar the faded seat of her
rolled-up jeans. Out of the lawn, bland Mrs. Haze, complete with camera,
grew up like a fakir’s fake tree and after some heliotropic fussing–sad
eyes up, glad eyes down–had the cheek of taking my picture as I sat
blinking on the steps, Humbert le Bel.
Friday. Saw her going somewhere with a dark girl called Rose.
Why does the way she walks–a child, mind you, a mere child!–excite me so
abominably? Analyze it. A faint suggestion of turned in toes. A kind of
wiggly looseness below the knee prolonged to the end of each footfall. The
ghost of a drag. Very infantile, infinitely meretricious. Humbert Humbert is
also infinitely moved by the little one’s slangy speech, by her harsh high
voice. Later heard her volley crude nonsense at Rose across the fence.
Twanging through me in a rising rhythm. Pause. “I must go now, kiddo.”
Saturday. (Beginning perhaps amended.) I know it is madness to
keep this journal but it gives me a strange thrill to do so; and only a
loving wife could decipher my microscopic script. Let me state with a sob
that today my L. was sun-bathing on the so-called “piazza,” but her mother
and some other woman were around all the time. Of course, I might have sat
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there in the rocker and pretended to read. Playing safe, I kept away, for I
was afraid that the horrible, insane, ridiculous and pitiful tremor that
palsied me might prevent me from making my entrèe with any semblance
of casualness.
Sunday. Heat ripple still with us; a most favonian week. This
time I took up a strategic position, with obese newspaper and new pipe, in
the piazza rocker before L. arrived. To my intense disappointment she
came with her mother, both in two-piece bathing suits, black, as new as my
pipe. My darling, my sweetheart stood for a moment near me–wanted the
funnies–and she smelt almost exactly like the other one, the Riviera one,
but more intensely so, with rougher overtones–a torrid odor that at once
set my manhood astir–but she had already yanked out of me the coveted
section and retreated to her mat near her phocine mamma. There my beauty lay
down on her stomach, showing me, showing the thousand eyes wide open in my
eyed blood, her slightly raised shoulder blades, and the bloom along the
incurvation of her spine, and the swellings of her tense narrow nates
clothed in black, and the seaside of her schoolgirl thighs. Silently, the
seventh-grader enjoyed her green-red-blue comics. She was the loveliest
nymphet green-red-blue Priap himself could think up. As I looked on, through
prismatic layers of light, dry-lipped, focusing my lust and rocking slightly
under my newspaper, I felt that my perception of her, if properly
concentrated upon, might be sufficient to have me attain a beggar’s bliss
immediately; but, like some predator that prefers a moving prey to a
motionless one, I planned to have this pitiful attainment coincide with the
various girlish movements she made now and then as she read, such as trying
to scratch the middle of her back and revealing a stippled armpit–but fat
Haze suddenly spoiled everything by turning to me and asking me for a light,
and starting a make-believe conversation about a fake book by some popular
fraud.
Monday. Delectatio morosa. I spend my doleful days in dumps and
dolors. We (mother Haze, Dolores and I) were to go to Our Glass Lake this
afternoon, and bathe, and bask; but a nacreous morn degenerated at noon into
rain, and Lo made a scene.
The median age of pubescence for girls has been found to be thirteen
years and nine months in New York and Chicago. The age varies for
individuals from ten, or earlier, to seventeen. Virginia was not quite
fourteen when Harry Edgar possessed her. He gave her lessons in algebra.
Je m’imagine cela. They spent their honeymoon at Petersburg, Fla.
“Monsieur Poe-poe,” as that boy in one of Monsieur Humbert Humbert’s classes
in Paris called the poet-poet.
I have all the characteristics which, according to writers on the sex
interests of children, start the responses stirring in a little girl:
clean-cut jaw, muscular hand, deep sonorous voice, broad shoulder. Moreover,
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I am said to resemble some crooner or actor chap on whom Lo has a crush.
Tuesday. Rain. Lake of the Rains. Mamma out shopping. L., I
knew, was somewhere quite near. In result of some stealthy maneuvering, I
came across her in her mother’s bedroom. Prying her left eye open to get rid
of a speck of something. Checked frock. Although I do love that intoxicating
brown fragrance of hers, I really think she should wash her hair once in a
while. For a moment, we were both in the same warm green bath of the mirror
that reflected the top of a poplar with us in the sky. Held her roughly by
the shoulders, then tenderly by the temples, and turned her about. “It’s
right there,” she said. “I can feel it.” “Swiss peasant would use the top of
her tongue.” “Lick it out?” “Yeth. Shly try?” “Sure,” she said. Gently I
pressed my quivering sting along her rolling salty eyeball. “Goody-goody,”
she said nictating. “It is gone.” “Now the other?” “You dope,” she
began, “there is noth–” but here she noticed the pucker of my approaching
lips. “Okay,” she said cooperatively, and bending toward her warm upturned
russet face somber Humbert pressed his mouth to her fluttering eyelid. She
laughed, and brushed past me out of the room. My heart seemed everywhere at
once. Never in my life–not even when fondling my child-love in
France–never–
Night. Never have I experienced such agony. I would like to describe
her face, her ways–and I cannot, because my own desire for her blinds me
when she is near. I am not used to being with nymphets, damn it. If I close
my eyes I see but an immobilized fraction of her, a cinematographic still, a
sudden smooth nether loveliness, as with one knee up under her tartan skirt
she sits tying her shoe. “Dolores Haze, ne montrez pas vos zhambes”
(this is her mother who thinks she knows French).
A poet þ mes heures, I composed a madrigal to the soot-black
lashes of her pale-gray vacant eyes, to the five asymmetrical freckles on
her bobbed nose, to the blond down of her brown limbs; but I tore it up and
cannot recall it today. Only in the tritest of terms (diary resumed) can I
describe Lo’s features: I might say her hair is auburn, and her lips as red
as licked red candy, the lower one prettily plump–oh, that I were a lady
writer who could have her pose naked in a naked light! But instead I am
lanky, big-boned, wooly-chested Humbert Humbert, with thick black eyebrows
and a queer accent, and a cesspoolful of rotting monsters behind his slow
boyish smile. And neither is she the fragile child of a feminine novel. What
drives me insane is the twofold nature of this nymphet–of every nymphet,
perhaps; this mixture in my Lolita of tender dreamy childishness and a kind
of eerie vulgarity, stemming from the snub-nosed cuteness of ads and
magazine pictures, from the blurry pinkness of adolescent maidservants in
the Old Country (smelling of crushed daisies and sweat); and from very young
harlots disguised as children in provincial brothels; and then again, all
this gets mixed up with the exquisite stainless tenderness seeping through
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the musk and the mud, through the dirt and the death, oh God, oh God. And
what is most singular is that she, this Lolita, my Lolita, has
individualized the writer’s ancient lust, so that above and over everything
there is–Lolita.
Wednesday. “Look, make Mother take you and me to Our Glass Lake
tomorrow.” These were the textual words said to me by my twelve-year-old
flame in a voluptuous whisper, as we happened to bump into one another on
the front porch, I out, she in. The reflection of the afternoon sun, a
dazzling white diamond with innumerable iridescent spikes quivered on the
round back of a parked car. The leafage of a voluminous elm played its
mellow shadows upon the clapboard wall of the house. Two poplars shivered
and shook. You could make out the formless sounds of remote traffic; a child
calling “Nancy, Nan-cy!” In the house, Lolita had put on her favorite
“Little Carmen” record which I used to call “Dwarf Conductors,” making her
snort with mock derision at my mock wit.
Thursday. Last night we sat on the piazza, the Haze woman,
Lolita and I. Warm dusk had deepened into amorous darkness. The old girl had
finished relating in great detail the plot of a movie she and L. had seen
sometime in the winter. The boxer had fallen extremely low when he met the
good old priest (who had been a boxer himself in his robust youth and could
still slug a sinner). We sat on cushions heaped on the floor, and L. was
between the woman and me (she had squeezed herself in, the pet). In my turn,
I launched upon a hilarious account of my arctic adventures. The muse of
invention handed me a rifle and I shot a white bear who sat down and said:
Ah! All the while I was acutely aware of L.’s nearness and as I spoke I
gestured in the merciful dark and took advantage of those invisible gestures
of mine to touch her hand, her shoulder and a ballerina of wool and gauze
which she played with and kept sticking into my lap; and finally, when I had
completely enmeshed my glowing darling in this weave of ethereal caresses, I
dared stroke her bare leg along the gooseberry fuzz of her shin, and I
chuckled at my own jokes, and trembled, and concealed my tremors, and once
or twice felt with my rapid lips the warmth of her hair as I treated her to
a quick nuzzling, humorous aside and caressed her plaything. She, too,
fidgeted a good deal so that finally her mother told her sharply to quit it
and sent the doll flying into the dark, and I laughed and addressed myself
to Haze across Lo’s legs to let my hand creep up my nymphet’s thin back and
feel her skin through her boy’s shirt.
But I knew it was all hopeless, and was sick with longing, and my
clothes felt miserably tight, and I was almost glad when her mother’s quiet
voice announced in the dark: “And now we all think that Lo should go to
bed.” “I think you stink,” said Lo. “Which means there will be no picnic
tomorrow,” said Haze. “This is a free country,” said Lo. When angry Lo with
a Bronx cheer had gone, I stayed on from sheer inertia, while Haze smoked
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her tenth cigarette of the evening and complained of Lo.
She had been spiteful, if you please, at the age of one, when she used
to throw her toys out of her crib so that her poor mother should keep
picking them up, the villainous infant! Now, at twelve, she was a regular
pest, said Haze. All she wanted from life was to be one day a strutting and
prancing baton twirler or a jitterbug. Her grades were poor, but she was
better adjusted in her new school than in Pisky (Pisky was the Haze home
town in the Middle West. The Ramsdale house was her late mother-in-law’s.
They had moved to Ramsdale less than two years ago). “Why was she unhappy
there?” “Oh,” said Haze, “poor me should know, I went through that when
I was a kid: boys twisting one’s arm, banging into one with loads of
books, pulling one’s hair, hurting one’s breasts, flipping one’s skirt. Of
course, moodiness is a common concomitant of growing up, but Lo exaggerates.
Sullen and evasive. Rude and defiant. Struck Viola, an Italian schoolmate,
in the seat with a fountain pen. Know what I would like? If you, monsieur,
happened to be still here in the fall, I’d ask you to help her with her
homework–you seem to know everything, geography, mathematics, French.” “Oh,
everything,” answered monsieur. “That means,” said Haze quickly, “you’ll
be here!” I wanted to shout that I would stay on eternally if only I
could hope to caress now and then my incipient pupil. But I was wary of
Haze. So I just grunted and stretched my limbs nonconcomitantly (le mot
juste) and presently went up to my room. The woman, however, was
evidently not prepared to call it a day. I was already lying upon my cold
bed both hands pressing to my face Lolita’s fragrant ghost when I heard my
indefatigable landlady creeping stealthily up to my door to whisper through
it–just to make sure, she said, I was through with the Glance and Gulp
magazine I had borrowed the other day. From her room Lo yelled she
had it. We are quite a lending library in this house, thunder of God.
Friday. I wonder what my academic publishers would say if I were
to quote in my textbook Ronsard’s “la vermeillette fente” or Remy
Belleau’s “un petit mont feutrè de mousse dèlicate, tracè sur le milieu
d’un fillet escarlatte” and so forth. I shall probably have another
breakdown if I stay any longer in this house, under the strain of this
intolerable temptation, by the side of my darling–my darling–my life and
my bride. Has she already been initiated by mother nature to the Mystery of
the Menarche? Bloated feelings. The Curse of the Irish. Falling from the
roof. Grandma is visiting. “Mr. Uterus [I quote from a girls’ magazine]
starts to build a thick soft wall on the chance a possible baby may have to
be bedded down there.” The tiny madman in his padded cell.
Incidentally: if I ever commit a serious murder . . . Mark the “if.”
The urge should be something more than the kind of thing that happened to me
with Valeria. Carefully mark that then was rather inept. If and when
you wish to sizzle me to death, remember that only a spell of insanity could
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ever give me the simple energy to be a brute (all this amended, perhaps).
Sometimes I attempt to kill in my dreams. But do you know what happens? For
instance I hold a gun. For instance I aim at a bland, quietly interested
enemy. Oh, I press the trigger all right, but one bullet after another
feebly drops on the floor from the sheepish muzzle. In those dreams, my only
thought is to conceal the fiasco from my foe, who is slowly growing annoyed.
At dinner tonight the old cat said to me with a sidelong gleam of
motherly mockery directed at Lo (I had just been describing, in a flippant
vein, the delightful little toothbrush mustache I had not quite decided to
grow): “Better don’t if somebody is not to go absolutely dotty.” Instantly
Lo pushed her plate of boiled fish away, all but knocking her milk over, and
bounced out of the dining room. “Would it bore you very much,” quoth Haze,
“to come with us tomorrow for a swim in Our Glass Lake if Lo apologizes for
her manners?”
Later, I heard a great banging of doors and other sounds coming from
quaking caverns where the two rivals were having a ripping row.
She had not apologized. The lake is out. It might have been fun.
Saturday. For some days already I had been leaving the door
ajar, while I wrote in my room; but only today did the trap work. With a
good deal of additional fidgeting, shuffling, scraping–to disguise her
embarrassment at visiting me without having been called–Lo came in and
after pottering around, became interested in the nightmare curlicues I had
penned on a sheet of paper. Oh no: they were not the outcome of a
belle-lettrist’s inspired pause between two paragraphs; they were the
hideous hieroglyphics (which she could not decipher) of my fatal lust. As
she bent her brown curs over the desk at which I was sitting, Humbert the
Hoarse put his arm around her in a miserable imitation of
blood-relationship; and still studying, somewhat shortsightedly, the piece
of paper she held, my innocent little visitor slowly sank to a half-sitting
position upon my knee. Her adorable profile, parted lips, warm hair were
some three inches from my bared eyetooth; and I felt the heat of her limbs
through her rough tomboy clothes. All at once I knew I could kiss her throat
or the wick of her mouth with perfect impunity. I knew she would let me do
so, and even close her eyes as Hollywood teaches. A double vanilla with hot
fudge–hardly more unusual than that. I cannot tell my learned reader (whose
eyebrows, I suspect, have by now traveled all the way to the back of his
bald head), I cannot tell him how the knowledge came to me; perhaps my
ape-ear had unconsciously caught some slight change in the rhythm of her
respiration–for now she was not really looking at my scribble, but waiting
with curiosity and composure–oh, my limpid nymphet!–for the glamorous
lodger to do what he was dying to do. A modern child, an avid reader of
movie magazines, an expert in dream-slow close-ups, might not think it too
strange, I guessed, if a handsome, intensely virile grown-up friend–too
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late. The house was suddenly vibrating with voluble Louise’s voice telling
Mrs. Haze who had just come home about a dead something she and Leslie
Tomson had found in the basement, and little Lolita was not one to miss such
a tale.
Sunday. Changeful, bad-tempered, cheerful, awkward, graceful
with the tart grace of her coltish subteens, excruciatingly desirable from
head to foot (all New England for a lady-writer’s pen!), from the black
read-made bow and bobby pins holding her hair in place to the little scar on
the lower part of her neat calf (where a roller-skater kicked her in Pisky),
a couple of inches above her rough white sock. Gone with her mother to the
Hamiltons–a birthday party or something. Full-skirted gingham frock. Her
little doves seem well formed already. Precocious pet!
Monday. Rainy morning. “Ces matins gris si doux . . .” My
white pajamas have a lilac design on the back. I am like one of those
inflated pale spiders you see in old gardens. Sitting in the middle of a
luminous web and giving little jerks to this or that strand. My web
is spread all over the house as I listen from my chair where I sit like a
wily wizard. Is Lo in her room? Gently I tug on the silk. She is not. Just
heard the toilet paper cylinder make its staccato sound as it is turned; and
no footfalls has my outflung filament traced from the bathroom back to her
room. Is she still brushing her teeth (the only sanitary act Lo performs
with real zest)? No. The bathroom door has just slammed, so one has to feel
elsewhere about the house for the beautiful warm-colored prey. Let us have a
strand of silk descend the stairs. I satisfy myself by this means that she
is not in the kitchen–not banging the refrigerator door or screeching at
her detested mamma (who, I suppose, is enjoying her third, cooing and
subduedly mirthful, telephone conversation of the morning). Well, let us
grope and hope. Ray-like, I glide in through to the parlor and find the
radio silent (and mamma still talking to Mrs. Chatfield or Mrs. Hamilton,
very softly, flushed, smiling, cupping the telephone with her free hand,
denying by implication that she denies those amusing rumors, rumor, roomer,
whispering intimately, as she never does, the clear-cut lady, in face to
face talk). So my nymphet is not in the house at all! Gone! What I thought
was a prismatic weave turns out to be but an old gray cobweb, the house is
empty, is dead. And then comes Lolita’s soft sweet chuckle through my
half-open door “Don’t tell Mother but I’ve eaten all your bacon.”
Gone when I scuttle out of my room. Lolita, where are you? My breakfast
tray, lovingly prepared by my landlady, leers at me toothlessly, ready to be
taken in. Lola, Lolita!
Tuesday. Clouds again interfered with that picnic on that
unattainable lake. Is it Fate scheming? Yesterday I tried on before the
mirror a new pair of bathing trunks.
Wednesday. In the afternoon, Haze (common-sensical shoes,
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tailor-made dress), said she was driving downtown to buy a present for a
friend of a friend of hers, and would I please come too because I have such
a wonderful taste in textures and perfumes. “Choose your favorite
seduction,” she purred. What could Humbert, being in the perfume business,
do? She had me cornered between the front porch and her car. “Hurry up,” she
said as I laboriously doubled up my large body in order to crawl in (still
desperately devising a means of escape). She had started the engine, and was
genteelly swearing at a backing and turning truck in front that had just
brought old invalid Miss Opposite a brand new wheel chair, when my Lolita’s
sharp voice came from the parlor window: “You! Where are you going? I’m
coming too! Wait!” “Ignore her,” yelped Haze (killing the motor); alas for
my fair driver; Lo was already pulling at the door on my side. “This is
intolerable,” began Haze; but Lo had scrambled in, shivering with glee.
“Move your bottom, you,” said Lo. “Lo!” cried Haze (sideglancing at me,
hoping I would throw rude Lo out). “And behold,” said Lo (not for the first
time), as she jerked back, as I jerked back, as the car leapt forward. “It
is intolerable,” said Haze, violently getting into second, “that a child
should be so ill-mannered. And so very persevering. When she knows she is
unwanted. And needs a bath.”
My knuckles lay against the child’s blue jeans. She was barefooted; her
toenails showed remnants of cherry-red polish and there was a bit of
adhesive tape across her big toe; and, God, what would I not have given to
kiss then and there those delicate-boned, long-toed, monkeyish feet!
Suddenly her hand slipped into mine and without our chaperon’s seeing, I
held, and stroked, and squeezed that little hot paw, all the way to the
store. The wings of the diver’s Marlenesque nose shone, having shed or
burned up their ration of powder, and she kept up an elegant monologue anent
the local traffic, and smiled in profile, and pouted in profile, and beat
her painted lashes in profile, while I prayed we would never get to that
store, but we did.
I have nothing else to report, save, primo: that big Haze had
little Haze sit behind on our way home, and secundo: that the lady
decided to keep Humbert’s Choice for the backs of her own shapely ears.
Thursday. We are paying with hail and gale for the tropical
beginning of the month. In a volume of the Young People’s
Encyclopedia, I found a map of the states that a child’s pencil had
started copying out on a sheet of lightweight paper, upon the other side of
which, counter to the unfinished outline of Florida and the Gulf, there was
a mimeographed list of names referring, evidently, to her class at the
Ramsdale school. It is a poem I know already by heart.
Angel, Grace
Austin, Floyd
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Beale, Jack
Beale, Mary
Buck, Daniel
Byron, Marguerite
Campbell, Alice
Carmine, Rose
Chatfield, Phyllis
Clarke, Gordon
Cowan, John
Cowan, Marion
Duncan, Walter
Falter, Ted
Fantasia, Stella
Flashman, Irving
Fox, George
Glave, Mabel
Goodale, Donald
Green, Lucinda
Hamilton, Mary Rose
Haze, Dolores
Honeck, Rosaline
Knight, Kenneth
McCoo, Virginia
McCrystal, Vivian
McFate, Aubrey
Miranda, Anthony
Miranda, Viola
Rosato, Emil
Schlenker, Lena
Scott, Donald
Sheridan, Agnes
Sherva, Oleg
Smith, Hazel
Talbot, Edgar
Talbot, Edwin
Wain, Lull
Williams, Ralph
Windmuller, Louise
A poem, a poem, forsooth! So strange and sweet was it to discover this
“Haze, Dolores” (she!) in its special bower of names, with its bodyguard of
roses–a fairy princess between her two maids of honor. I am trying to
analyze the spine-thrill of delight it gives me, this name among all those
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others. What is it that excites me almost to tears (hot, opalescent, thick
tears that poets and lovers shed)? What is it? The tender anonymity of this
name with its formal veil (“Dolores”) and that abstract transposition of
first name and surname, which is like a pair of new pale gloves or a mask?
Is “mask” the keyword? Is it because there is always delight in the
semitranslucent mystery, the flowing charshaf, through which the flesh and
the eye you alone are elected to know smile in passing at you alone? Or is
it because I can imagine so well the rest of the colorful classroom around
my dolorous and hazy darling: Grace and her ripe pimples; Ginny and her
lagging leg; Gordon, the haggard masturbator; Duncan, the foul-smelling
clown; nail-biting Agnes; Viola, of the blackheads and the bouncing bust;
pretty Rosaline; dark Mary Rose; adorable Stella, who has let strangers
touch her; Ralph, who bullies and steals; Irving, for whom I am sorry. And
there she is there, lost in the middle, gnawing a pencil, detested by
teachers, all the boys’ eyes on her hair and neck, my Lolita.
Friday. I long for some terrific disaster. Earthquake.
Spectacular explosion. Her mother is messily but instantly and permanently
eliminated, along with everybody else for miles around. Lolita whimpers in
my arms. A free man, I enjoy her among the ruins. Her surprise, my
explanations, demonstrations, ullulations. Idle and idiotic fancies! A brave
Humbert would have played with her most disgustingly (yesterday, for
instance, when she was again in my room to show me her drawings,
school-artware); he might have bribed her–and got away with it. A simpler
and more practical fellow would have soberly stuck to various commercial
substitutes–if you know where to go, I don’t. Despite my many looks, I am
horribly timid. My romantic soul gets all clammy and shivery at the thought
of running into some awful indecent unpleasantness. Those ribald sea
monsters. “Mais allez-y, allez-y!” Annabel skipping on one foot to
get into her shorts, I seasick with rage, trying to screen her.
Same date, later, quite late. I have turned on the light to take down a
dream. It had an evident antecedent. Haze at dinner had benevolently
proclaimed that since the weather bureau promised a sunny weekend we would
go to the lake Sunday after church. As I lay in bed, erotically musing
before trying to go to sleep, I thought of a final scheme how to profit by
the picnic to come. I was aware that mother Haze hated my darling for her
being sweet on me. So I planned my lake day with a view to satisfying the
mother. To her alone would I talk; but at some appropriate moment I would
say I had left my wrist watch or my sunglasses in that glade yonder–and
plunge with my nymphet into the wood. Reality at this juncture withdrew, and
the Quest for the Glasses turned into a quiet little orgy with a singularly
knowing, cheerful, corrupt and compliant Lolita behaving as reason knew she
could not possibly behave. At 3 a.m. I swallowed a sleeping pill, and
presently, a dream that was not a sequel but a parody revealed to me, with a
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kind of meaningful clarity, the lake I had never yet visited: it was glazed
over with a sheet of emerald ice, and a pockmarked Eskimo was trying in vain
to break it with a pickax, although imported mimosas and oleanders flowered
on its gravelly banks. I am sure Dr. Blanche Schwarzmann would have paid me
a sack of schillings for adding such a libidream to her files.
Unfortunately, the rest of it was frankly eclectic. Big Haze and little Haze
rode on horseback around the lake, and I rode too, dutifully bobbing up and
down, bowlegs astraddle although there was no horse between them, only
elastic air–one of those little omissions due to the absentmindedness of
the dream agent.
Saturday. My heart is still thumping. I still squirm and emit
low moans of remembered embarrassment.
Dorsal view. Glimpse of shiny skin between T-shirt and white gym
shorts. Bending, over a window sill, in the act of tearing off leaves from a
poplar outside while engrossed in torrential talk with a newspaper boy below
(Kenneth Knight, I suspect) who had just propelled the Ramsdale
Journal with a very precise thud onto the porch. I began creeping up
to her–“crippling” up to her as pantomimists say. My arms and legs were
convex surfaces between which–rather than upon which–I slowly progressed
by some neutral means of locomotion: Humbert the Wounded Spider. I must have
taken hours to reach her: I seemed to see her through the wrong end of a
telescope, and toward her taut little rear I moved like some paralytic, on
soft distorted limbs, in terrible concentration. At last I was right behind
her when I had the unfortunate idea of blustering a trifle–shaking her by
the scruff of the neck and that sort of thing to cover my real
manõge, and she said in a shrill brief whine: “Cut it out!”–most
coarsely, the little wench, and with a ghastly grin Humbert the Humble beat
a gloomy retreat while she went on wisecracking streetward.
But now listen to what happened next. After lunch I was reclining in a
low chair trying to read. Suddenly two deft little hands were over my eyes:
she had crept up from behind as if re-enacting, in a ballet sequence, my
morning maneuver. Her fingers were a luminous crimson as they tried to blot
out the sun, and she uttered hiccups of laughter and jerked this way and
that as I stretched my arm sideways and backwards without otherwise changing
my recumbent position. My hand swept over her agile giggling legs, and the
book like a sleigh left my lap, and Mrs. Haze strolled up and said
indulgently: “Just slap her hard if she interferes with your scholarly
meditations. How I love this garden [no exclamation mark in her tone]. Isn’t
it divine in the sun [no question mark either].” And with a sign of feigned
content, the obnoxious lady sank down on the grass and looked up at the sky
as she leaned back on her splayed-out hands, and presently an old gray
tennis ball bounced over her, and Lo’s voice came from the house haughtily:
“Pardonnez, Mother. I was not aiming at you.” Of course not,
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my hot downy darling.
12
This proved to be the last of twenty entries or so. It will be seem
from them that for all the devil’s inventiveness, the scheme remained daily
the same. First he would tempt me–and then thwart me, leaving me with a
dull pain in the very root of my being. I knew exactly what I wanted to do,
and how to do it, without impinging on a child’s chastity; after all, I had
had some experience in my life of pederosis; had visually possessed
dappled nymphets in parks; had wedged my wary and bestial way into the
hottest, most crowded corner of a city bus full of straphanging school
children. But for almost three weeks I had been interrupted in all my
pathetic machinations. The agent of these interruptions was usually the Haze
woman (who, as the reader will mark, was more afraid of Lo’s deriving some
pleasure from me than of my enjoying Lo). The passion I had developed for
that nymphet–for the first nymphet in my life that could be reached at last
by my awkward, aching, timid claws–would have certainly landed me again in
a sanatorium, had not the devil realized that I was to be granted some
relief if he wanted to have me as a plaything for some time longer.
The reader has also marked the curious Mirage of the Lake. It would
have been logical on the part of Aubrey McFate (as I would like to dub that
devil of mine) to arrange a small treat for me on the promised beach, in the
presumed forest. Actually, the promise Mrs. Haze had made was a fraudulent
one: she had not told me that Mary Rose Hamilton (a dark little beauty in
her own right) was to come too, and that the two nymphets would be
whispering apart, and playing apart, and having a good time all by
themselves, while Mrs. Haze and her handsome lodger conversed sedately in
the seminude, far from prying eyes. Incidentally, eyes did pry and tongues
did wag. How queer life is! We hasten to alienate the very fates we intended
to woo. Before my actual arrival, my landlady had planned to have an old
spinster, a Miss Phalen, whose mother had been cook in Mrs. Haze’s family,
come to stay in the house with Lolita and me, while Mrs. Haze, a career girl
at heart, sought some suitable job in the nearest city. Mrs. Haze had seen
the whole situation very clearly: the bespectacled, round-backed Herr
Humbert coming with his Central-European trunks to gather dust in his corner
behind a heap of old books; the unloved ugly little daughter firmly
supervised by Miss Phalen who had already once had my Lo under her buzzard
wing (Lo recalled that 1944 summer with an indignant shudder); and Mrs. Haze
herself engaged as a receptionist in a great elegant city. But a not too
complicated event interfered with that program. Miss Phalen broke her hip in
Savannah, Ga., on the very day I arrived in Ramsdale.
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13
The Sunday after the Saturday already described proved to be as bright
as the weatherman had predicted. When putting the breakfast things back on
the chair outside my room for my good landlady to remove at her convenience,
I gleaned the following situation by listening from the landing across which
I had softly crept to the banisters in my old bedroom slippers–the only old
things about me.
There had been another row. Mrs. Hamilton had telephoned that her
daughter “was running a temperature.” Mrs. Haze informed her daughter
that the picnic would have to be postponed. Hot little Haze informed big
cold Haze that, if so, she would not go with her to church. Mother said very
well and left.
I had come out on the landing straight after shaving, soapy-earlobed,
still in my white pajamas with the cornflower blue (not the lilac) design on
the back; I now wiped off the soap, perfumed my hair and armpits, slipped on
a purple silk dressing gown, and, humming nervously, went down the stairs in
quest of Lo.
I want my learned readers to participate in the scene I am about to
replay; I want them to examine its every detail and see for themselves how
careful, how chaste, the whole wine-sweet event is if viewed with what my
lawyer has called, in a private talk we have had, “impartial sympathy.” So
let us get started. I have a difficult job before me.
Main character: Humbert the Hummer. Time: Sunday morning in June.
Place: sunlit living room. Props: old, candy-striped davenport, magazines,
phonograph, Mexican knickknacks (the late Mr. Harold E. Haze–God bless the
good man–had engendered my darling at the siesta hour in a blue-washed
room, on a honeymoon trip to Vera Cruz, and mementoes, among these Dolores,
were all over the place). She wore that day a pretty print dress that I had
seen on her once before, ample in the skirt, tight in the bodice,
short-sleeved, pink, checkered with darker pink, and, to complete the color
scheme, she had painted her lips and was holding in her hollowed hands a
beautiful, banal, Eden-red apple. She was not shod, however, for church. And
her white Sunday purse lay discarded near the phonograph.
My heart beat like a drum as she sat down, cool skirt ballooning,
subsiding, on the sofa next to me, and played with her glossy fruit. She
tossed it up into the sun-dusted air, and caught it–it made a cupped
polished plot.
Humbert Humbert intercepted the apple.
“Give it back,” – she pleaded, showing the marbled flush of her palms.
I produced Delicious. She grasped it and bit into it, and my heart was like
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snow under thin crimson skin, and with the monkeyish nimbleness that was so
typical of that American nymphet, she snatched out of my abstract grip the
magazine I had opened (pity no film had recorded the curious pattern, the
monogrammic linkage of our simultaneous or overlapping moves). Rapidly,
hardly hampered by the disfigured apple she held, Lo flipped violently
through the pages in search of something she wished Humbert to see. Found it
at last. I faked interest by bringing my head so close that her hair touched
my temple and her arm brushed my cheek as she wiped her lips with her wrist.
Because of the burnished mist through which I peered at the picture, I was
slow in reacting to it, and her bare knees rubbed and knocked impatiently
against each other. Dimly there came into view: a surrealist painter
relaxing, supine, on a beach, and near him, likewise supine, a plaster
replica of the Venus di Milo, half-buried in sand. Picture of the Week, said
the legend. I whisked the whole obscene thing away. Next moment, in a sham
effort to retrieve it, she was all over me. Caught her by her thin knobby
wrist. The magazine escaped to the floor like a flustered fowl. She twisted
herself free, recoiled, and lay back in the right-hand corner of the
davenport. Then, with perfect simplicity, the impudent child extended her
legs across my lap.
By this time I was in a state of excitement bordering on insanity; but
I also had the cunning of the insane. Sitting there, on the sofa, I managed
to attune, by a series of stealthy movements, my masked lust to her
guileless limbs. It was no easy matter to divert the little maiden’s
attention while I performed the obscure adjustments necessary for the
success of the trick. Talking fast, lagging behind my own breath, catching
up with it, mimicking a sudden toothache to explain the breaks in my
patter–and all the while keeping a maniac’s inner eye on my distant golden
goal, I cautiously increased the magic friction that was doing away, in an
illusional, if not factual, sense, with the physically irremovable, but
psychologically very friable texture of the material divide (pajamas and
robe) between the weight of two sunburnt legs, resting athwart my lap, and
the hidden tumor of an unspeakable passion. Having, in the course of my
patter, hit upon something nicely mechanical, I recited, garbling them
slightly, the words of a foolish song that was then popular–O my Carmen, my
little Carmen, something, something, those something nights, and the stars,
and the cars, and the bars, and the barmen; I kept repeating this automatic
stuff and holding her under its special spell (spell because of the
garbling), and all the while I was mortally afraid that some act of God
might interrupt me, might remove the golden load in the sensation of which
all my being seemed concentrated, and this anxiety forced me to work, for
the first minute or so, more hastily than was consensual with deliberately
modulated enjoyment. The stars that sparkled, and the cars that parkled, and
the bars, and the barmen, were presently taken over by her; her voice stole
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and corrected the tune I had been mutilating. She was musical and
apple-sweet. Her legs twitched a little as they lay across my live lap; I
stroked them; there she lolled in the right-hand corner, almost asprawl,
Lola the bobby-soxer, devouring her immemorial fruit, singing through its
juice, losing her slipper, rubbing the heel of her slipperless foot in its
sloppy anklet, against the pile of old magazines heaped on my left on the
sofa–and every movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to
conceal and to improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between
beast and beauty–between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her
dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock.
Under my glancing finger tips I felt the minute hairs bristle ever so
slightly along her shins. I lost myself in the pungent but healthy heat
which like summer haze hung about little Haze. Let her stay, let her stay .
. . As she strained to chuck the core of her abolished apple into the
fender, her young weight, her shameless innocent shanks and round bottom,
shifted in my tense, tortured, surreptitiously laboring lap; and all of a
sudden a mysterious change came over my senses. I entered a plane of being
where nothing mattered, save the infusion of joy brewed within my body. What
had begun as a delicious distention of my innermost roots became a glowing
tingle which now had reached that state of absolute security,
confidence and reliance not found elsewhere in conscious life. With the deep
hot sweetness thus established and well on its way to the ultimate
convulsion, I felt I could slow down in order to prolong the glow. Lolita
had been safely solipsized. The implied sun pulsated in the supplied
poplars; we were fantastically and divinely alone; I watched her, rosy,
gold-dusted, beyond the veil of my controlled delight, unaware of it, alien
to it, and the sun was on her lips, and her lips were apparently still
forming the words of the Carmen-barmen ditty that no longer reached my
consciousness. Everything was now ready. The nerves of pleasure had been
laid bare. The corpuscles of Krause were entering the phase of frenzy. The
least pressure would suffice to set all paradise loose. I had ceased to be
Humbert the Hound, the sad-eyed degenerate cur clasping the boot that would
presently kick him away. I was above the tribulations of ridicule, beyond
the possibilities of retribution. In my self-made seraglio, I was a radiant
and robust Turk, deliberately, in the full consciousness of his freedom,
postponing the moment of actually enjoying the youngest and frailest of his
slaves. Suspended on the brink of that voluptuous abyss (a nicety of
physiological equipoise comparable to certain techniques in the arts) I kept
repeating the chance words after her–barmen, alarmin’, my charmin’, my
carmen, ahmen, ahahamen–as one talking and laughing in his sleep while my
happy hand crept up her sunny leg as far as the shadow of decency allowed.
The day before she had collided with the heavy chest in the hall and–“Look,
look!”–I gasped–“look what you’ve done, what you’ve done to yourself, ah,
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look”; for there was, I swear, a yellowish-violet bruise on her lovely
nymphet thigh which my huge hairy hand massaged and slowly enveloped–and
because of her very perfunctory underthings, there seemed to be nothing to
prevent my muscular thumb from reaching the hot hollow of her groin–just as
you might tickle and caress a giggling child–just that–and: “Oh, it’s
nothing at all,” she cried with a sudden shrill note in her voice, and she
wiggled, and squirmed, and threw her head back, and her teeth rested on her
glistening underlip as she half-turned away, and my moaning mouth, gentlemen
of the jury, almost reached her bare neck, while I crushed out against her
left buttock the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever
known.
Immediately afterward (as if we had been struggling and now my grip had
eased) she rolled off the sofa and jumped to her feet–to her foot,
rather–in order to attend to the formidably loud telephone that may have
been ringing for ages as far as I was concerned. There she stood and
blinked, cheeks aflame, hair awry, her eyes passing over me as lightly as
they did over the furniture, and as she listened or spoke (to her mother who
was telling her to come to lunch with her at the Chatfileds–neither Lo nor
Hum knew yet what busybody Haze was plotting), she kept tapping the edge of
the table with the slipper she held in her hand. Blessed be the Lord, she
had noticed nothing!
With a handkerchief of multicolored silk, on which her listening eyes
rested in passing, I wiped the sweat off my forehead, and, immersed in a
euphoria of release, rearranged my royal robes. She was still at the
telephone, haggling with her mother (wanted to be fetched by car, my little
Carmen) when, singing louder and louder, I swept up the stairs and set a
deluge of steaming water roaring into the tub.
At this point I may as well give the words of that song hit in full–to
the best of my recollection at least–I don’t think I ever had it right.
Here goes:
O my Carmen, my little Carmen!
Something, something those something nights,
And the stars, and the cars, and the bars and the barmen–
And, O my charmin’, our dreadful fights.
And the something town where so gaily, arm in
Arm, we went, and our final row,
And the gun I killed you with, O my Carmen,
The gun I am holding now.
(Drew his .32 automatic, I guess, and put a bullet through his moll’s
eye.)
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14
I had lunch in town–had not been so hungry for years. The house was
still Lo-less when I strolled back. I spent the afternoon musing, scheming,
blissfully digesting my experience of the morning.
I felt proud of myself. I had stolen the honey of a spasm without
impairing the morals of a minor. Absolutely no harm done. The conjurer had
poured milk, molasses, foaming champagne into a young lady’s new white
purse; and lo, the purse was intact. Thus had I delicately constructed my
ignoble, ardent, sinful dream; and still Lolita was safe–and I was safe.
What I had madly possessed was not she, but my own creation, another,
fanciful Lolita–perhaps, more real than Lolita; overlapping, encasing her;
floating between me and her, and having no will, no consciousness–indeed,
no life of her own.
The child knew nothing. I had done nothing to her. And nothing
prevented me from repeating a performance that affected her as little as if
she were a photographic image rippling upon a screen and I a humble
hunchback abusing myself in the dark. The afternoon drifted on and on, in
ripe silence, and the sappy tall trees seemed to be in the know; and desire,
even stronger than before, began to afflict me again. Let her come soon, I
prayed, addressing a loan God, and while mamma is in the kitchen, let a
repetition of the davenport scene be staged, please, I adore her so
horribly.
No: “horribly” is the wrong word. The elation with which the vision of
new delights filled me was not horrible but pathetic. I qualify it as
pathetic. Pathetic–because despite the insatiable fire of my venereal
appetite, I intended, with the most fervent force and foresight, to protect
the purity of that twelve-year-old child.
And now see how I was repaid for my pains. No Lolita came home–she had
gone with the Chatfields to a movie. The table was laid with more elegance
than usual: candlelight, if you please. In this mawkish aura, Mrs. Haze
gently touched the silver on both sides of her plate as if touching piano
keys, and smiled down on her empty plate (was on a diet), and said she hoped
I liked the salad (recipe lifted from a woman’s magazine). She hoped I liked
the cold cuts, too. It had been a perfect day. Mrs. Chatfield was a lovely
person. Phyllis, her daughter, was going to a summer camp tomorrow. For
three weeks. Lolita, it was decided, would go Thursday. Instead of waiting
till July, as had been initially planned. And stay there after Phyllis had
left. Till school began. A pretty prospect, my heart.
Oh, how I was taken aback–for did it not mean I was losing my darling,
just when I had secretly made her mine? To explain my grim mood, I had to
use the same toothache I had already simulated in the morning. Must have
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been an enormous molar, with an abscess as big as a maraschino cherry.
“We have,” said Haze, “an excellent dentist. Our neighbor, in fact. Dr.
Quilty. Uncle or cousin, I think, of the playwright. Think it will pass?
Well, just as you wish. In the fall I shall have him ‘brace’ her, as my
mother used to say. It may curb Lo a little. I am afraid she has been
bothering you frightfully all these days. And we are in for a couple of
stormy ones before she goes. She has flatly refused to go, and I confess I
left her with the Chatfields because I dreaded to face her alone just yet.
The movie may mollify her. Phyllis is a very sweet girl, and there is no
earthly reason for Lo to dislike her. Really, monsieur, I am very sorry
about that tooth of yours. It would be so much more reasonable to let me
contact Ivor Quilty first thing tomorrow morning if it still hurts. And, you
know, I think a summer camp is so much healthier, and–well, it is all so
much more reasonable as I say than to mope on a suburban lawn and use
mamma’s lipstick, and pursue shy studious gentlemen, and go into tantrums at
the least provocation.”
“Are you sure,” I said at last, “that she will be happy there?” (lame,
lamentably lame!)
“She’d better,” said Haze. “And it won’t be all play either. The camp
is run by Shirley Holmes–you know, the woman who wrote Campfire
Girl. Camp will teach Dolores Haze to grow in many things–health,
knowledge, temper. And particularly in a sense of responsibility towards
other people. Shall we take these candles with us and sit for a while on the
piazza, or do you want to go to bed and nurse that tooth?”
Nurse that tooth.
15
Next day they drove downtown to buy things needed for the camp: any
wearable purchase worked wonders with Lo. She seemed her usual sarcastic
self at dinner. Immediately afterwards, she went up to her room to plunge
into the comic books acquired for rainy days at Camp Q (they were so
thoroughly sampled by Thursday that she left them behind). I too retired to
my lair, and wrote letters. My plan now was to leave for the seaside and
then, when school began, resume my existence in the Haze household; for I
knew already that I could not live without the child. On Tuesday they went
shopping again, and I was asked to answer the phone if the camp mistress
rang up during their absence. She did; and a month or so later we had
occasion to recall our pleasant chat. That Tuesday, Lo had her dinner in her
room. She had been crying after a routine row with her mother and, as had
happened on former occasions, had not wished me to see her swollen eyes: she
had one of those tender complexions that after a good cry get all blurred
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and inflamed, and morbidly alluring. I regretted keenly her mistake about my
private aesthetics, for I simply love that tinge of Botticellian pink, that
raw rose about the lips, those wet, matted eyelashes; and, naturally, her
bashful whim deprived me of many opportunities of specious consolation.
There was, however, more to it than I thought. As we sat in the darkness of
the verandah (a rude wind had put out her red candles), Haze, with a dreary
laugh, said she had told Lo that her beloved Humbert thoroughly approved of
the whole camp idea “and now,” added Haze, “the child throws a fit; pretext:
you and I want to get rid of her; actual reason: I told her we would
exchange tomorrow for plainer stuff some much too cute night things that she
bullied me into buying for her. You see, she sees herself as a
starlet; I see her as a sturdy, healthy, but decidedly homely kid.
This, I guess, is at the root of our troubles.”
On Wednesday I managed to waylay Lo for a few seconds: she was on the
landing, in sweatshirt and green-stained white shorts, rummaging in a trunk.
I said something meant to be friendly and funny but she only emitted a snort
without looking at me. Desperate, dying Humbert patted her clumsily on her
coccyx, and she struck him, quite painfully, with one of the late Mr. Haze’s
shoetrees. “Doublecrosser,” she said as I crawled downstairs rubbing my arm
with a great show of rue. She did not condescend to have dinner with Hum and
mum: washed her hair and went to bed with her ridiculous books. And on
Thursday quiet Mrs. Haze drove her to Camp Q.
As greater authors than I have put it: “Let readers imagine” etc. On
second thought, I may as well give those imaginations a kick in the pants. I
knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not
be forever Lolita. She would be thirteen on January 1. In two years or so
she would cease being a nymphet and would turn into a “young girl,” and
then, into a “college girl”–that horror of horrors. The word “forever”
referred only to my own passion, to the eternal Lolita as reflected in my
blood. The Lolita whose iliac crests had not yet flared, the Lolita that
today I could touch and smell and hear and see, the Lolita of the strident
voice and rich brown hair–of the bangs and the swirls and the sides and the
curls at the back, and the sticky hot neck, and the vulgar
vocabulary–“revolting,” “super,” “luscious,” “goon,” “drip”–that
Lolita, my Lolita, poor Catullus would lose forever. So how could I
afford not to see her for two months of summer insomnias? Two whole months
out of the two years of her remaining nymphage! Should I disguise myself as
a somber old-fashioned girl, gawky Mlle Humbert, and put up my tent on the
outskirts of Camp Q, in the hope that its russet nymphets would clamor: “Let
us adopt that deep-voiced D.P.,” and drag the said, shyly smiling Berthe
au Grand Pied to their rustic hearth. Berthe will sleep with Dolores
Haze!
Idle dry dreams. Two months of beauty, two months of tenderness, would
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be squandered forever, and I could do nothing about it, but nothing, mais
rien.
One drop of rare honey, however, that Thursday did hold in its acorn
cup. Haze was to drive her to the camp in the early morning. Upon sundry
sounds of departure reaching me, I rolled out of bed and leaned out of the
window. Under the poplars, the car was already athrob. On the sidewalk,
Louise stood shading her eyes with her hand, as if the little traveler were
already riding into the low morning sun. The gesture proved to be premature.
“Hurry up!” shouted Haze. My Lolita, who was half in and about to slam the
car door, wind down the glass, wave to Louise and the poplars (whom and
which she was never to see again), interrupted the motion of fate: she
looked up–and dashed back into the house (Haze furiously calling after
her). A moment later I heard my sweetheart running up the stairs. My heart
expanded with such force that it almost blotted me out. I hitched up the
pants of my pajamas, flung the door open: and simultaneously Lolita arrived,
in her Sunday frock, stamping, panting, and then she was in my arms, her
innocent mouth melting under the ferocious pressure of dark male jaws, my
palpitating darling! The next instant I heart her–alive, unraped–clatter
downstairs. The motion of fate was resumed. The blond leg was pulled in, the
car door was slammed–was re-slammed–and driver Haze at the violent wheel,
rubber-red lips writhing in angry, inaudible speech, swung my darling away,
while unnoticed by them or Louise, old Miss Opposite, an invalid, feebly but
rhythmically waved from her vined verandah.
16
The hollow of my hand was still ivory-full of Lolita–full of the feel
of her pre-adolescently incurved back, that ivory-smooth, sliding sensation
of her skin through the thin frock that I had worked up and down while I
held her. I marched into her tumbled room, threw open the door of the
closet, and plunged into a heap of crumpled things that had touched her.
There was particularly one pink texture, sleazy, torn, with a faintly acrid
odor in the seam. I wrapped in it Humbert’s huge engorged heart. A poignant
chaos was welling within me–but I had to drop those things and hurriedly
regain my composure, as I became aware of the maid’s velvety voice calling
me softly from the stairs. She had a message for me, she said; and, topping
my automatic thanks with a kindly “you’re welcome,” good Louise left an
unstamped, curiously clean-looking letter in my shaking hand.
“This is a confession. I love you [so the letter began; and for a
distorted moment I mistook its hysterical scrawl for a schoolgirl’s
scribble]. Last Sunday in church–bad you, who refused to come to see our
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beautiful new windows!–only last Sunday, my dear one, when I asked the Lord
what to do about it, I was told to act as I am acting now. You see, there is
no alternative. I have loved you from the minute I saw you. I am a
passionate and lonely woman and you are the love of my life.
Now, my dearest, dearest, mon cher, cher monsieur, you have read
this; now you know. So, will you please, at once, pack and leave.
This is a landlady’s order. I am dismissing a lodger. I am kicking you out.
Go! Scram! Departez! I shall be back by dinnertime, if I do eighty
both ways and don’t have an accident (but what would it matter?), and I do
not wish to find you in the house. Please, please, leave at once,
now, do not even read this absurd note to the end. Go. Adieu.
The situation, chèri, is quite simple. Of course, I know with
absolute certainty that I am nothing to you, nothing at all to you,
nothing at all. Oh yes, you enjoy talking to me (and kidding poor me), you
have grown fond of our friendly house, of the books I like, of my lovely
garden, even of Lo’s noisy ways–but I am nothing to you. Right? Right.
Nothing to you whatever. But if, after reading my “confession,” you
decided, in your dark romantic European way, that I am attractive enough for
you to take advantage of my letter and make a pass at me, then you would be
a criminal–worse than a kidnaper who rapes a child. You see, chèri.
If you decided to stay, if I found you at home (which I know I
won’t–and that’s why I am able to go on like this), the fact of your
remaining would only mean one thing: that you want me as much as I do you:
as a lifelong mate; and that you are ready to link up your life with mine
forever and ever and be a father to my little girl.
Let me rave and ramble on for a teeny while more, my dearest, since I
know this letter has been by now torn by you, and its pieces (illegible) in
the vortex of the toilet. My dearest, mon trõs, trõs cher, what a
world of love I have built up for you during this miraculous June! I know
how reserved you are, how “British.” Your old-world reticence, your sense of
decorum may be shocked by the boldness of an American girl! You who conceal
your strongest feelings must think me a shameless little idiot for throwing
open my poor bruised heart like this. In years gone by, many disappointments
came my way. Mr. Haze was a splendid person, a sterling soul, but he
happened to be twenty years my senior, and–well, let us not gossip about
the past. My dearest, your curiosity must be well satisfied if you have
ignored my request and read this letter to the bitter end. Never mind.
Destroy it and go. Do not forget to leave the key on the desk in your room.
And some scrap of address so that I could refund the twelve dollars I owe
you till the end of the month. Good-bye, dear one. Pray for me–if you ever
pray.
C.H.”
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What I present here is what I remember of the letter, and what I
remember of the letter I remember verbatim (including that awful French). It
was at least twice longer. I have left out a lyrical passage which I more or
less skipped at the time, concerning Lolita’s brother who died at 2 when she
was 4, and how much I would have liked him. Let me see what else can I say?
Yes. There is just a chance that “the vortex of the toilet” (where the
letter did go) is my own matter-of-fact contribution. She probably begged me
to make a special fire to consume it.
My first movement was one of repulsion and retreat. My second was like
a friend’s calm hand falling upon my shoulder and bidding me take my time. I
did. I came out of my daze and found myself still in Lo’s room. A full-page
ad ripped out of a slick magazine was affixed to the wall above the bed,
between a crooner’s mug and the lashes of a movie actress. It represented a
dark-haired young husband with a kind of drained look in his Irish eyes. He
was modeling a robe by So-and-So and holding a bridgelike tray by So-and-So,
with breakfast for two. The legend, by the Rev. Thomas Morell, called him a
“conquering hero.” The thoroughly conquered lady (not shown) was presumably
propping herself up to receive her half of the tray. How her bed-fellow was
to get under the bridge without some messy mishap was not clear. Lo had
drawn a jocose arrow to the haggard lover’s face and had put, in block
letters: H.H. And indeed, despite a difference of a few years, the
resemblance was striking. Under this was another picture, also a colored ad.
A distinguished playwright was solemnly smoking a Drome. He always smoked
Dromes. The resemblance was slight. Under this was Lo’s chase bed, littered
with “comics.” The enamel had come off the bedstead, leaving black, more or
less rounded, marks on the white. Having convinced myself that Louise had
left, I got into Lo’s bed and reread the letter.
17
Gentlemen of the jury! I cannot swear that certain motions pertaining
to the business in hand–if I may coin an expression–had not drifted across
my mind before. My mind had not retained them in any logical form or in any
relation to definitely recollected occasions; but I cannot swear–let me
repeat–that I had not toyed with them (to rig up yet another expression),
in my dimness of thought, in my darkness of passion. There may have been
times–there must have been times, if I know my Humbert–when I had brought
up for detached inspection the idea of marrying a mature widow (say,
Charlotte Haze) with not one relative left in the wide gray world, merely in
order to have my way with her child (Lo, Lola, Lolita). I am even prepared
to tell my tormentors that perhaps once or twice I had cast an appraiser’s
cold eye at Charlotte’s coral lips and bronze hair and dangerously low
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neckline, and had vaguely tried to fit her into a plausible daydream. This I
confess under torture. Imaginary torture, perhaps, but all the more
horrible. I wish I might digress and tell you more of the pavor
nocturnus that would rack me at night hideously after a chance term had
struck me in the random readings of my boyhood, such as peine forte et
dure (what a Genius of Pain must have invented that!) or the dreadful,
mysterious, insidious words “trauma,” “traumatic event,” and “transom.” But
my tale is sufficiently incondite already.
After a while I destroyed the letter and went to my room, and
ruminated, and rumpled my hair, and modeled my purple robe, and moaned
through clenched teeth and suddenly–Suddenly, gentlemen of the jury, I felt
a Dostoevskian grin dawning (through the very grimace that twisted my lips)
like a distant and terrible sun. I imagined (under conditions of new and
perfect visibility) all the casual caresses her mother’s husband would be
able to lavish on his Lolita. I would hold her against me three times a day,
every day. All my troubles would be expelled, I would be a healthy man. “To
hold thee lightly on a gentle knee and print on thy soft cheek a parent’s
kiss . . .” Well-read Humbert!
Then, with all possible caution, on mental tiptoe so to speak, I
conjured up Charlotte as a possible mate. By God, I could make myself bring
her that economically halved grapefruit, that sugarless breakfast.
Humbert Humbert sweating in the fierce white light, and howled at, and
trodden upon by sweating policemen, is now ready to make a further
“statement” (quel mot!) as he turns his conscience inside out and
rips off its innermost lining. I did not plan to marry poor Charlotte in
order to eliminate her in some vulgar, gruesome and dangerous manner such as
killing her by placing five bichloride-of-mercury tablets in her preprandial
sherry or anything like that; but a delicately allied, pharmacopoeial
thought did tinkle in my sonorous and clouded brain. Why limit myself to the
modest masked caress I had tried already? Other visions of venery presented
themselves to me swaying and smiling. I saw myself administering a powerful
sleeping potion to both mother and daughter so as to fondle the latter
though the night with perfect impunity. The house was full of Charlotte’s
snore, while Lolita hardly breathed in her sleep, as still as a painted
girl-child. “Mother, I swear Kenny never even touched me.” “You
either lie, Dolores Haze, or it was an incubus.” No, I would not go that
far.
So Humbert the Cubus schemed and dreamed–and the red sun of desire and
decision (the two things that create a live world) rose higher and higher,
while upon a succession of balconies a succession of libertines, sparkling
glass in hand, toasted the bliss of past and future nights. Then,
figuratively speaking, I shattered the glass, and boldly imagined (for I was
drunk on those visions by then and underrated the gentleness of my nature)
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how eventually I might blackmail–no, that it too strong a word–mauvemail
big Haze into letting me consort with the little Haze by gently threatening
the poor doting Big Dove with desertion if she tried to bar me from playing
with my legal stepdaughter. In a word, before such an Amazing Offer, before
such a vastness and variety of vistas, I was as helpless as Adam at the
preview of early oriental history, miraged in his apple orchard.
And now take down the following important remark: the artist in me has
been given the upper hand over the gentleman. It is with a great effort of
will that in this memoir I have managed to tune my style to the tone of the
journal that I kept when Mrs. Haze was to me but an obstacle. That journal
of mine is no more; but I have considered it my artistic duty to preserve
its intonations no matter how false and brutal they may seem to me now.
Fortunately, my story has reached a point where I can cease insulting poor
Charlotte for the sake of retrospective verisimilitude.
Wishing to spare poor Charlotte two or three hours of suspense on a
winding road (and avoid, perhaps, a head-on collision that would shatter our
different dreams), I made a thoughtful but abortive attempt to reach her at
the camp by telephone. She had left half an hour before, and getting Lo
instead, I told her–trembling and brimming with my mastery over fate–that
I was going to marry her mother. I had to repeat it twice because something
was preventing her from giving me her attention. “Gee, that’s swell,” she
said laughing. “When is the wedding? Hold on a sec, the pup–That put here
has got hold of my sock. Listen–” and she added she guessed she was going
to have loads of fun . . . and I realized as I hung up that a couple of
hours at that camp had been sufficient to blot out with new impressions the
image of handsome Humbert Humbert from little Lolita’s mind. But what did it
matter now? I would get her back as soon as a decent amount of time after
the wedding had elapsed. “The orange blossom would have scarcely withered on
the grave,” as a poet might have said. But I am no poet. I am only a very
conscientious recorder.
After Louise had gone, I inspected the icebox, and finding it much too
puritanic, walked to town and bought the richest foods available. I also
bought some good liquor and two or three kinds of vitamins. I was pretty
sure that with the aid of these stimulants and my natural resources, I would
avert any embarrassment that my indifference might incur when called upon to
display a strong and impatient flame. Again and again resourceful Humbert
evoked Charlotte as seen in the raree-show of a manly imagination. She was
well groomed and shapely, this I could say for her, and she was my Lolita’s
big sister–this notion, perhaps, I could keep up if only I did not
visualize too realistically her heavy hips, round knees, ripe bust, the
coarse pink skin of her neck (“coarse” by comparison with silk and honey)
and all the rest of that sorry and dull thing: a handsome woman.
The sun made its usual round of the house as the afternoon ripened into
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evening. I had a drink. And another. And yet another. Gin and pineapple
juice, my favorite mixture, always double my energy. I decided to busy
myself with our unkempt lawn. Une petite attention. It was crowded
with dandelions, and a cursed dog–I loathe dogs–had defiled the flat
stones where a sundial had once stood. Most of the dandelions had changed
from suns to moons. The gin and Lolita were dancing in me, and I almost fell
over the folding chairs that I attempted to dislodge. Incarnadine zebras!
There are some eructations that sound like cheers–at least, mine did. An
old fence at the back of the garden separated us from the neighbor’s garbage
receptacles and lilacs; but there was nothing between the front end of our
lawn (where it sloped along one side of the house) and the street. Therefore
I was able to watch (with the smirk of one about to perform a good action)
for the return of Charlotte: that tooth should be extracted at once. As I
lurched and lunged with the hand mower, bits of grass optically twittering
in the low sun, I kept an eye on that section of suburban street. It curved
in from under an archway of huge shade trees, then sped towards us down,
down, quite sharply, past old Miss Opposite’s ivied brick house and
high-sloping lawn (much trimmer than ours) and disappeared behind our own
front porch which I could not see from where I happily belched and labored.
The dandelions perished. A reek of sap mingled with the pineapple. Two
little girls, Marion and Mabel, whose comings and goings I had mechanically
followed of late (but who could replace my Lolita?) went toward the avenue
(from which our Lawn Street cascaded), one pushing a bicycle, the other
feeding from a paper bag, both talking at the top of their sunny voices.
Leslie, old Miss Opposite’s gardener and chauffeur, a very amiable and
athletic Negro, grinned at me from afar and shouted, re-shouted, commented
by gesture, that I was mighty energetic today. The fool dog of the
prosperous junk dealer next door ran after a blue car–not Charlotte’s. The
prettier of the two little girls (Mabel, I think), shorts, halter with
little to halt, bright hair–a nymphet, by Pan!–ran back down the street
crumpling her paper bag and was hidden from this Green Goat by the frontage
of Mr. And Mrs. Humbert’s residence. A station wagon popped out of the leafy
shade of the avenue, dragging some of it on its roof before the shadows
snapped, and swung by at an idiotic pace, the sweatshirted driver
roof-holding with his left hand and the junkman’s dog tearing alongside.
There was a smiling pause–and then, with a flutter in my breast, I
witnessed the return of the Blue Sedan. I saw it glide downhill and
disappear behind the corner of the house. I had a glimpse of her calm pale
profile. It occurred to me that until she went upstairs she would not know
whether I had gone or not. A minute later, with an expression of great
anguish on her face, she looked down at me from the window of Lo’s room. By
sprinting upstairs, I managed to reach that room before she left it.
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18
When the bride is a window and the groom is a widower; when the former
has lived in Our Great Little Town for hardly two years, and the latter for
hardly a month; when Monsieur wants to get the whole damned thing over with
as quickly as possible, and Madame gives in with a tolerant smile; then, my
reader, the wedding is generally a “quiet” affair. The bride may dispense
with a tiara of orange blossoms securing her finger-tip veil, nor does she
carry a white orchid in a prayer book. The bride’s little daughter might
have added to the ceremonies uniting H. and H. a touch of vivid vermeil; but
I knew I would not dare be too tender with cornered Lolita yet, and
therefore agreed it was not worth while tearing the child away from her
beloved Camp Q.
My soi-disant passionate and lonely Charlotte was in everyday
life matter-of-fact and gregarious. Moreover, I discovered that although she
could not control her heart or her cries, she was a woman of principle.
Immediately after she had become more or less my mistress (despite the
stimulants, her “nervous, eager chèri–a heroic chèri!–had
some initial trouble, for which, however, he amply compensated her by a
fantastic display of old-world endearments), good Charlotte interviewed me
about my relations with God. I could have answered that on that score my
mind was open; I said, instead–paying my tribute to a pious platitude–that
I believed in a cosmic spirit. Looking down at her fingernails, she also
asked me had I not in my family a certain strange strain. I countered by
inquiring whether she would still want to marry me if my father’s maternal
grandfather had been, say, a Turk. She said it did not matter a bit; but
that, if she ever found out I did not believe in Our Christian God, she
would commit suicide. She said it so solemnly that it gave me the creeps. It
was then I knew she was a woman of principle.
Oh, she was very genteel: she said “excuse me” whenever a slight burp
interrupted her flowing speech, called an envelope and ahnvelope, and when
talking to her lady-friends referred to me as Mr. Humbert. I thought it
would please her if I entered the community trailing some glamour after me.
On the day of our wedding a little interview with me appeared in the Society
Column of the Ramsdale Journal, with a photograph of Charlotte, one
eyebrow up and a misprint in her name (“Hazer”). Despite this contretempts,
the publicity warmed the porcelain cockles of her heart–and made my rattles
shake with awful glee. by engaging in church work as well as by getting to
know the better mothers of Lo’s schoolmates, Charlotte in the course of
twenty months or so had managed to become if not a prominent, at least an
acceptable citizen, but never before had she come under that thrilling
rubrique, and it was I who put her there, Mr. Edgar H. Humbert (I
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threw in the “Edgar” just for the heck of it), “writer and explorer.”
McCoo’s brother, when taking it down, asked me what I had written. Whatever
I told him came out as “several books on Peacock, Rainbow and other poets.”
It was also noted that Charlotte and I had known each other for several
years and that I was a distant relation of her first husband. I hinted I had
had an affair with her thirteen years ago but this was not mentioned in
print. To Charlotte I said that society columns should contain a
shimmer of errors.
Let us go on with this curious tale. When called upon to enjoy my
promotion from lodger to lover, did I experience only bitterness and
distaste? No. Mr. Humbert confesses to a certain titillation of his vanity,
to some faint tenderness, even to a pattern of remorse daintily running
along the steel of his conspiratorial dagger. Never had I thought that the
rather ridiculous, through rather handsome Mrs. Haze, with her blind faith
in the wisdom of her church and book club, her mannerisms of elocution, her
harsh, cold, contemptuous attitude toward an adorable, downy-armed child of
twelve, could turn into such a touching, helpless creature as soon as I laid
my hands upon her which happened on the threshold of Lolita’s room whither
she tremulously backed repeating “no, no, please no.”
The transformation improved her looks. Her smile that had been such a
contrived thing, thenceforth became the radiance of utter adoration–a
radiance having something soft and moist about it, in which, with wonder, I
recognized a resemblance to the lovely, inane, lost look that Lo had when
gloating over a new kind of concoction at the soda fountain or mutely
admiring my expensive, always tailor-fresh clothes. Deeply fascinated, I
would watch Charlotte while she swapped parental woes with some other lady
and made that national grimace of feminine resignation (eyes rolling up,
mouth drooping sideways) which, in an infantile form, I had seen Lo making
herself. We had highballs before turning in, and with their help, I would
manage to evoke the child while caressing the mother. This was the white
stomach within which my nymphet had been a little curved fish in 1934. This
carefully dyed hair, so sterile to my sense of smell and touch, acquired at
certain lamplit moments in the poster bed the tinge, if not the texture, of
Lolita’s curls. I kept telling myself, as I wielded my brand-new
large-as-life wife, that biologically this was the nearest I could get to
Lolita; that at Lolita’s age, Lotte had been as desirable a schoolgirl as
her daughter was, and as Lolita’s daughter would be some day. I had my wife
unearth from under a collection of shoes (Mr. Haze had a passion for them,
it appears) a thirty-year-old album, so that I might see how Lotte had
looked as a child; and even though the light was wrong and the dresses
graceless, I was able to make out a dim first version of Lolita’s outline,
legs, cheekbones, bobbed nose. Lottelita, Lolitchen.
So I tom-peeped across the hedges of years, into wan little windows.
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And when, by means of pitifully ardent, naively lascivious caresses, she of
the noble nipple and massive thigh prepared me for the performance of my
nightly duty, it was still a nymphet’s scent that in despair I tried to pick
up, as I bayed through the undergrowth of dark decaying forests.
I simply can’t tell you how gentle, how touching my poor wife was. At
breakfast, in the depressingly bright kitchen, with its chrome glitter and
Hardware and Co. Calendar and cute breakfast nook (simulating that Coffee
Shoppe where in their college days Charlotte and Humbert used to coo
together), she would sit, robed in red, her elbow on the plastic-topped
table, her cheek propped on her fist, and stare at me with intolerable
tenderness as I consumed my ham and eggs. Humbert’s face might twitch with
neuralgia, but in her eyes it vied in beauty and animation with the sun and
shadows of leaves rippling on the white refrigerator. My solemn exasperation
was to her the silence of love. My small income added to her even smaller
one impressed her as a brilliant fortune; not because the resulting sum now
sufficed for most middle-class needs, but because even my money shone in her
eyes with the magic of my manliness, and she saw our joint account as one of
those southern boulevards at midday that have solid shade on one side and
smooth sunshine on the other, all the way to the end of a prospect, where
pink mountains loom.
Into the fifty days of our cohabitation Charlotte crammed the
activities of as many years. The poor woman busied herself with a number of
things she had foregone long before or had never been much interested in, as
if (to prolong these Proustian intonations) by my marrying the mother of the
child I loved I had enabled my wife to regain an abundance of youth by
proxy. With the zest of a banal young bride, she started to “glorify the
home.” Knowing as I did its every cranny by heart–since those days when
from my chair I mentally mapped out Lolita’s course through the house–I had
long entered into a sort of emotional relationship with it, with its very
ugliness and dirt, and now I could almost feel the wretched thing cower in
its reluctance to endure the bath of ecru and ocher and putt-buff-and-snuff
that Charlotte planned to give it. She never got as far as that, thank God,
but she did use up a tremendous amount of energy in washing window shades,
waxing the slats of Venetian blinds, purchasing new shades and new blinds,
returning them to the store, replacing them by others, and so on, in a
constant chiaroscuro of smiles and frowns, doubts and pouts. She dabbled in
cretonnes and chintzes; she changed the colors of the sofa–the sacred sofa
where a bubble of paradise had once burst in slow motion within me. She
rearranged the furniture–and was pleased when she found, in a household
treatise, that “it is permissible to separate a pair of sofa commodes and
their companion lamps.” With the authoress of Your Home Is You, she
developed a hatred for little lean chairs and spindle tables. She believed
that a room having a generous expanse of glass, and lots of rich wood
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paneling was an example of the masculine type of room, whereas the feminine
type was characterized by lighter-looking windows and frailer woodwork. The
novels I had found her reading when I moved in were now replaced by
illustrated catalogues and homemaking guides. From a firm located at 4640
Roosevelt Blvd., Philadelphia, she ordered for our double bed a “damask
covered 312 coil mattress”–although the old one seemed to me resilient and
durable enough for whatever it had to support.
A Midwesterner, as her late husband had also been, she had lived in coy
Ramsdale, the gem of an eastern state, not long enough to know all the nice
people. She knew slightly the jovial dentist who lived in a kind of
ramshackle wooden chateau behind our lawn. She had met at a church tea the
“snooty” wife of the local junk dealer who owned the “colonial” white horror
at the corner of the avenue. Now and then she “visited with” old Miss
Opposite; but the more patrician matrons among those she called upon, or met
at lawn functions, or had telephone chats with–such dainty ladies as Mrs.
Glave, Mrs. Sheridan, Mrs. McCrystal, Mrs. Knight and others, seldom seemed
to call on my neglected Charlotte. Indeed, the only couple with whom she had
relations of real cordiality, devoid of any arriõre-pensèe or
practical foresight, were the Farlows who had just come back from a business
trip to Chile in time to attend our wedding, with the Chatfields, McCoos,
and a few others (but not Mrs. Junk or the even prouder Mrs. Talbot). John
Farlow was a middle-aged, quiet, quietly athletic, quietly successful dealer
in sporting goods, who had an office at Parkington, forty miles away: it was
he who got me the cartridges for that Colt and showed me how to use it,
during a walk in the woods one Sunday; he was also what he called with a
smile a part-time lawyer and had handled some of Charlotte’s affairs. Jean,
his youngish wife (and first cousin), was a long-limbed girl in harlequin
glasses with two boxer dogs, two pointed breasts and a big red mouth. She
painted–landscapes and portraits–and vividly do I remember praising, over
cocktails, the picture she had made of a niece of hers, little Rosaline
Honeck, a rosy honey in a Girl Scout uniform, beret of green worsted, belt
of green webbing, charming shoulder-long curls–and John removed his pipe
and said it was a pity Dolly (my Dolita) and Rosaline were so critical of
each other at school, but he hoped, and we all hoped, they would get on
better when they returned from their respective camps. We talked of the
school. It had its drawbacks, and it had its virtues. “Of course, too many
of the tradespeople here are Italians,” said John, “but on the other hand we
are still spared–” “I wish,” interrupted Jean with a laugh, “Dolly and
Rosaline were spending the summer together.” Suddenly I imagined Lo
returning from camp–brown, warm, drowsy, drugged–and was ready to weep
with passion and impatience.
19
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A few words more about Mrs. Humbert while the going is good (a bad
accident is to happen quite soon). I had been always aware of the possessive
streak in her, but I never thought she would be so crazily jealous of
anything in my life that had not been she. She showed a fierce insatiable
curiosity for my past. She desired me to resuscitate all my loves so that
she might make me insult them, and trample upon them, and revoke them
apostately and totally, thus destroying my past. She made me tell her about
my marriage to Valeria, who was of course a scream; but I also had to
invent, or to pad atrociously, a long series of mistresses for Charlotte’s
morbid delectation. To keep her happy, I had to present her with an
illustrated catalogue of them, all nicely differentiated, according to the
rules of those American ads where schoolchildren are pictured in a subtle
ratio of races, with one–only one, but as cute as they make
them–chocolate-colored round-eyed little lad, almost in the very middle of
the front row. So I presented my women, and had them smile and sway–the
languorous blond, the fiery brunette, the sensual copperhead–as if on
parade in a bordello. The more popular and platitudinous I made them, the
more Mrs. Humbert was pleased with the show.
Never in my life had I confessed so much or received so many
confessions. The sincerity and artlessness with which she discussed what she
called her “love-life,” from first necking to connubial catch-as-catch-can,
were, ethically, in striking contrast with my glib compositions, but
technically the two sets were congeneric since both were affected by the
same stuff (soap operas, psychoanalysis and cheap novelettes) upon which I
drew for my characters and she for her mode of expression. I was
considerably amused by certain remarkable sexual habits that the good Harold
Haze had had according to Charlotte who thought my mirth improper; but
otherwise her autobiography was as devoid of interests as her autopsy would
have been. I never saw a healthier woman than she, despite thinning diets.
Of my Lolita she seldom spoke–more seldom, in fact, than she did of
the blurred, blond male baby whose photograph to the exclusion of all others
adorned our bleak bedroom. In once of her tasteless reveries, she predicted
that the dead infant’s soul would return to earth in the form of the child
she would bear in her present wedlock. And although I felt no special urge
to supply the Humbert line with a replica of Harold’s production (Lolita,
with an incestuous thrill, I had grown to regard as my child), it
occurred to me that a prolonged confinement, with a nice Cesarean operation
and other complications in a safe maternity ward sometime next spring, would
give me a chance to be alone with my Lolita for weeks, perhaps–and gorge
the limp nymphet with sleeping pills.
Oh, she simply hated her daughter! What I thought especially vicious
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was that she had gone out of her way to answer with great diligence the
questionnaires in a fool’s book she had (A guide to Your Child’s
Development), published in Chicago. The rigmarole went year by year, and
Mom was supposed to fill out a kind of inventory at each of her child’s
birthdays. On Lo’s twelfth, January 1, 1947, Charlotte Haze, nèe Becker, had
underlined the following epithets, ten out of forty, under “Your Child’s
Personality”: aggressive, boisterous, critical, distrustful, impatient,
irritable, inquisitive, listless, negativistic (underlined twice) and
obstinate. She had ignored the thirty remaining adjectives, among which were
cheerful, co-operative, energetic, and so forth. It was really maddening.
With a brutality that otherwise never appeared in my loving wife’s mild
nature, she attacked and routed such of Lo’s little belongings that had
wandered to various parts of the house to freeze there like so many
hypnotized bunnies. Little did the good lady dream that one morning when an
upset stomach (the result of my trying to improve on her sauces) had
prevented me from accompanying her to church, I deceived her with one of
Lolita’s anklets. And then, her attitude toward my saporous darling’s
letters!
“Dear Mummy and Hummy,
Hope you are fine. Thank you very much for the candy. I [crossed out
and re-written again] I lost my new sweater in the woods. It has been cold
here for the last few days. I’m having a time. Love,
Dolly.”
“The dumb child,” said Mrs. Humbert, “has left out a word before
‘time.’ That sweater was all-wool, and I wish you would not send her candy
without consulting me.”
20
There was a woodlake (Hourglass Lake–not as I had thought it was
spelled) a few miles from Ramsdale, and there was one week of great heat at
the end of July when we drove there daily. I am now obliged to describe in
some tedious detail our last swim there together, one tropical Tuesday
morning.
We had left the car in a parking area not far from the road and were
making our way down a path cut through the pine forest to the lake, when
Charlotte remarked that Jean Farlow, in quest of rare light effects (Jean
belonged to the old school of painting), had seen Leslie taking a dip “in
the ebony” (as John had quipped) at five o’clock in the morning last Sunday.
“The water,” I said, “must have been quite cold.”
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“That is not the point,” said the logical doomed dear. “He is
subnormal, you see. And,” she continued (in that carefully phrased way of
hers that was beginning to tell on my health), “I have a very definite
feeling our Louise is in love with that moron.”
Feeling. “We feel Dolly is not doing as well” etc. (from an old school
report).
The Humberts walked on, sandaled and robed.
“Do you know, Hum: I have one most ambitious dream,” pronounced Lady
Hum, lowering her head–shy of that dream–and communing with the tawny
ground. “I would love to get hold of a real trained servant maid like that
German girl the Talbots spoke of; and have her live in the house.”
“No room,” I said.
“Come,” she said with her quizzical smile, “surely, chèri, you
underestimate the possibilities of the Humbert home. We would put her in
Lo’s room. I intended to make a guestroom of that hole anyway. It’s the
coldest and meanest in the whole house.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, the skin of my cheekbones
tensing up (this I take the trouble to note only because my daughter’s skin
did the same when she felt that way: disbelief, disgust, irritation).
“Are you bothered by Romantic Associations?” queried my wife–in
allusion to her first surrender.
“Hell no,” said I. “I just wonder where will you put your daughter when
you get your guest or your maid.”
“Ah,” said Mrs. Humbert, dreaming, smiling, drawing out the “Ah”
simultaneously with the raise of one eyebrow and a soft exhalation of
breath. “Little Lo, I’m afraid, does not enter the picture at all, at all.
Little Lo goes straight from camp to a good boarding school with strict
discipline and some sound religious training. And then–Beardsley College. I
have it all mapped out, you need not worry.”
She went on to say that she, Mrs. Humbert, would have to overcome her
habitual sloth and write to Miss Phalli’s sister who taught at St. Algebra.
The dazzling lake emerged. I said I had forgotten my sunglasses in the car
and would catch up with her.
I had always thought that wringing one’s hands was a fictional
gesture–the obscure outcome, perhaps, of some medieval ritual; but as I
took to the woods, for a spell of despair and desperate meditation, this was
the gesture (“look, Lord, at these chains!”) that would have come nearest to
the mute expression of my mood.
Had Charlotte been Valeria, I would have known how to handle the
situation; and “handle” is the word I want. In the good old days, by merely
twisting fat Valechka’s brittle wrist (the one she had fallen upon from a
bicycle) I could make her change her mind instantly; but anything of the
sort in regard to Charlotte was unthinkable. Bland American Charlotte
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frightened me. My lighthearted dream of controlling her through her passion
for me was all wrong. I dared not do anything to spoil the image of me she
had set up to adore. I had toadied to her when she was the awesome duenna of
my darling, and a groveling something still persisted in my attitude toward
her. The only ace I held was her ignorance of my monstrous love for her Lo.
She had been annoyed by Lo’s liking me; but my feelings she could not
divine. To Valeria I might have said: “Look here, you fat fool, c’est moi
qui dècide what is good for Dolores Humbert.” To Charlotte, I could not
even say (with ingratiating calm): “Excuse me, my dear, I disagree. Let us
give the child one more chance. Let me be her private tutor for a year or
so. You once told me yourself–” In fact, I could not say anything at all to
Charlotte about the child without giving myself away. Oh, you cannot imagine
(as I had never imagined) what these women of principle are! Charlotte, who
did not notice the falsity of all the everyday conventions and rules of
behavior, and foods, and books, and people she doted upon, would distinguish
at once a false intonation in anything I might say with a view to keeping Lo
near. She was like a musician who may be an odious vulgarian in ordinary
life, devoid of tact and taste; but who will hear a false note in music with
diabolical accuracy of judgment. To break Charlotte’s will, I would have to
break her heart. If I broke her heart, her image of me would break too. If I
said: “Either I have my way with Lolita, and you help me to keep the matter
quiet, or we part at once,” she would have turned as pale as a woman of
clouded glass and slowly replied: “All right, whatever you add or retract,
this is the end.” And the end it would be.
Such, then, was the mess. I remember reaching the parking area and
pumping a handful of rust-tasting water, and drinking it as avidly as if it
would give me magic wisdom, youth, freedom, a tiny concubine. For a while,
purple-robed, heel-dangling, I sat on the edge of one of the rude tables,
under the whooshing pines. In the middle distance, two little maidens in
shorts and halters came out of a sun-dappled privy marked “Women.”
Gum-chewing Mabel (or Mabel’s understudy) laboriously, absentmindedly
straddled a bicycle, and Marion, shaking her hair because of the flies,
settled behind, legs wide apart; and wobbling, they slowly, absently, merged
with the light and shade. Lolita! Father and daughter melting into these
woods! The natural solution was to destroy Mrs. Humbert. But how?
No man can bring about the perfect murder; chance, however, can do it.
There was the famous dispatch of a Mme Lacour in Arles, southern France, at
the close of last century. An unidentified bearded six-footer, who, it was
later conjectured, had been the lady’s secret lover, walked up to her in a
crowded street, soon after her marriage to Colonel Lacour, and mortally
stabbed her in the back, three times, while the Colonel, a small bulldog of
a man, hung onto the murderer’s arm. By a miraculous and beautiful
coincidence, right at the moment when the operator was in the act of
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loosening the angry little husband’s jaws (while several onlookers were
closing in upon the group), a cranky Italian in the house nearest to the
scene set off by sheer accident some kind of explosive he was tinkering
with, and immediately the street was turned into a pandemonium of smoke,
falling bricks and running people. The explosion hurt no one (except that it
knocked out game Colonel Lacour); but the lady’s vengeful lover ran when the
others ran–and lived happily ever after.
Now look what happens when the operator himself plans a perfect
removal.
I walked down to Hourglass Lake. The spot from which we and a few other
“nice” couples (the Farlows, the Chatfields) bathed was a kind of small
cove; my Charlotte liked it because it was almost “a private beach.” The
main bathing facilities (or drowning facilities” as the Ramsdale
Journal had had occasion to say) were in the left (eastern) part of
the hourglass, and could not be seen from our covelet. To our right, the
pines soon gave way to a curve of marshland which turned again into forest
on the opposite side.
I sat down beside my wife so noiselessly that she started.
“Shall we go in?” she asked.
“We shall in a minute. Let me follow a train of thought.”
I thought. More than a minute passed.
“All right. Come on.”
“Was I on that train?”
“You certainly were.”
“I hope so,” said Charlotte entering the water. It soon reached the
gooseflesh of her thick thighs; and then, joining her outstretched hands,
shutting her mouth tight, very plain-faced in her black rubber headgear,
charlotte flung herself forward with a great splash.
Slowly we swam out into the shimmer of the lake.
On the opposite bank, at least a thousand paces away (if one cold walk
across water), I could make out the tiny figures of two men working like
beavers on their stretch of shore. I knew exactly who they were: a retired
policeman of Polish descent and the retired plumber who owned most of the
timber on that side of the lake. And I also knew they were engaged in
building, just for the dismal fun of the thing, a wharf. The knocks that
reached us seemed so much bigger than what could be distinguished of those
dwarfs’ arms and tools; indeed, one suspected the director of those
acrosonic effects to have been at odds with the puppet-master, especially
since the hefty crack of each diminutive blow lagged behind its visual
version.
The short white-sand strip of “our” beach–from which by now we had
gone a little way to reach deep water–was empty on weekday mornings. There
was nobody around except those two tiny very busy figures on the opposite
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side, and a dark-red private plane that droned overhead, and then
disappeared in the blue. The setting was really perfect for a brisk bubbling
murder, and here was the subtle point: the man of law and the man of water
were just near enough to witness an accident and just far enough not to
observe a crime. They were near enough to hear a distracted bather thrashing
about and bellowing for somebody to come and help him save his drowning
wife; and they were too far to distinguish (if they happened to look too
soon) that the anything but distracted swimmer was finishing to tread his
wife underfoot. I was not yet at that stage; I merely want to convey the
ease of the act, the nicety of the setting! So there was Charlotte swimming
on with dutiful awkwardness (she was a very mediocre mermaid), but not
without a certain solemn pleasure (for was not her merman by her side?); and
as I watched, with the stark lucidity of a future recollection (you
know–trying to see things as you will remember having seen them), the
glossy whiteness of her wet face so little tanned despite all her endeavors,
and her pale lips, and her naked convex forehead, and the tight black cap,
and the plump wet neck, I knew that all I had to do was to drop back, take a
deep breath, then grab her by the ankle and rapidly dive with my captive
corpse. I say corpse because surprise, panic and inexperience would cause
her to inhale at once a lethal gallon of lake, while I would be able to hold
on for at least a full minute, open-eyed under water. The fatal gesture
passed like the tail of a falling star across the blackness of the
contemplated crime. It was like some dreadful silent ballet, the male dancer
holding the ballerina by her foot and streaking down through watery
twilight. I might come up for a mouthful of air while still holding her
down, and then would dive again as many times as would be necessary, and
only when the curtain came down on her for good, would I permit myself to
yell for help. And when some twenty minutes later the two puppets steadily
growing arrived in a rowboat, one half newly painted, poor Mrs. Humbert
Humbert, the victim of a cramp or coronary occlusion, or both, would be
standing on her head in the inky ooze, some thirty feet below the smiling
surface of Hourglass Lake.
Simple, was it not? But what d’ye know, folks–I just could not make
myself do it!
She swam beside me, a trustful and clumsy seal, and all the logic of
passion screamed in my ear: Now is the time! And, folks, I just couldn’t! In
silence I turned shoreward and gravely, dutifully, she also turned, and
still hell screamed its counsel, and still I could not make myself drown the
poor, slippery, big-bodied creature. The scream grew more and more remote as
I realized the melancholy fact that neither tomorrow, nor Friday, nor any
other day or night, could I make myself put her to death. Oh, I could
visualize myself slapping Valeria’s breasts out of alignment, or otherwise
hurting her–and I could see myself, no less clearly, shooting her lover in
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the underbelly and making him say “akh!” and sit down. But I could not kill
Charlotte–especially when things were on the whole not quite as hopeless,
perhaps, as they seemed at first wince on that miserable morning. Were I to
catch her by her strong kicking foot; were I to see her amazed look, hear
her awful voice; were I still to go through with the ordeal, her ghost would
haunt me all my life. Perhaps if the year were 1447 instead of 1947 I might
have hoodwinked my gentle nature by administering her some classical poison
from a hollow agate, some tender philter of death. But in our middle-class
nosy era it would not have come off the way it used to in the brocaded
palaces of the past. Nowadays you have to be a scientist if you want to be a
killer. No, no, I was neither. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the
majority of sex offenders that hanker for some throbbing, sweet-moaning,
physical but not necessarily coital, relation with a girl-child, are
innocuous, inadequate, passive, timid strangers who merely ask the community
to allow them to pursue their practically harmless, so-called aberrant
behavior, their little hot wet private acts of sexual deviation without the
police and society cracking down upon them. We are not sex fiends! We do not
rape as good soldiers do. We are unhappy, mild, dog-eyed gentlemen,
sufficiently well integrated to control our urge in the presence of adults,
but ready to give years and years of life for one chance to touch a nymphet.
Emphatically, no killers are we. Poets never kill. Oh, my poor Charlotte, do
not hate me in your eternal heaven among an eternal alchemy of asphalt and
rubber and metal and stone–but thank God, not water, not water!
Nonetheless it was a very close shave, speaking quite objectively. And
now comes the point of my perfect-crime parable.
We sat down on our towels in the thirsty sun. She looked around,
loosened her bra, and turned over on her stomach to give her back a chance
to be feasted upon. She said she loved me. She sighed deeply. She extended
one arm and groped in the pocket of her robe for her cigarettes. She sat up
and smoked. She examined her right shoulder. She kissed me heavily with open
smoky mouth. Suddenly, down the sand bank behind us, from under the bushes
and pines, a stone rolled, then another.
“Those disgusting prying kids,” said Charlotte, holding up her big bra
to her breast and turning prone again. “I shall have to speak about that to
Peter Krestovski.”
From the debouchment of the trail came a rustle, a footfall, and Jean
Farlow marched down with her easel and things.
“You scared us,” said Charlotte.
Jean said she had been up there, in a place of green concealment,
spying on nature (spies are generally shot), trying to finish a lakescape,
but it was no good, she had no talent whatever (which was quite true)–“And
have you ever tried painting, Humbert?” Charlotte, who was a little
jealous of Jean, wanted to know if John was coming.
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He was. He was coming home for lunch today. He had dropped her on the
way to Parkington and should be picking her up any time now. It was a grand
morning. She always felt a traitor to Cavall and Melampus for leaving them
roped on such gorgeous days. She sat down on the white sand between
Charlotte and me. She wore shorts. Her long brown legs were about as
attractive to me as those of a chestnut mare. She showed her gums when she
smiled.
“I almost put both of you into my lake,” she said. “I even noticed
something you overlooked. You [addressing Humbert] had your wrist watch on
in, yes, sir, you had.”
“Waterproof,” said Charlotte softly, making a fish mouth.
Jean took my wrist upon her knee and examined Charlotte’s gift, then
put back Humbert’s hand on the sand, palm up.
“You could see anything that way,” remarked Charlotte coquettishly.
Jean sighed. “I once saw,” she said, “two children, male and female, at
sunset, right here, making love. Their shadows were giants. And I told you
about Mr. Tomson at daybreak. Next time I expect to see fat old Ivor in the
ivory. He is really a freak, that man. Last time he told me a completely
indecent story about his nephew. It appears–”
“Hullo there,” said John’s voice.
21
My habit of being silent when displeased or, more exactly, the cold and
scaly quality of my displeased silence, used to frighten Valeria out of her
wits. She used to whimper and wail, saying “Ce qui me rend folle, c’est
que je ne sais þ quoi tu penses quand tu es comme ãa.” I tried being
silent with Charlotte–and she just chirped on, or chucked my silence under
the chin. An astonishing woman! I would retire to my former room, now a
regular “studio,” mumbling I had after all a learned opus to write, and
cheerfully Charlotte went on beautifying the home, warbling on the telephone
and writing letters. From my window, through the lacquered shiver of poplar
leaves, I could see her crossing the street and contentedly mailing her
letter to Miss Phalen’s sister.
The week of scattered showers and shadows which elapsed after our last
visit to the motionless sands of Hourglass Lake was one of the gloomiest I
can recall. Then came two or three dim rays of hope–before the ultimate
sunburst.
It occurred to me that I had a fine brain in beautiful working order
and that I might as well use it. If I dared not meddle with my wife’s plans
for her daughter (getting warmer and browner every day in the fair weather
of hopeless distance), I could surely devise some general means to assert
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myself in a general way that might be later directed toward a particular
occasion. One evening, Charlotte herself provided me with an opening.
“I have a surprise for you,” she said looking at me with fond eyes over
a spoonful of soup. “In the fall we two are going to England.”
I swallowed my spoonful, wiped my lips with pink paper (Oh, the
cool rich linens of Mirana Hotel!) and said:
“I have also a surprise for you, my dear. We two are not going to
England.”
“Why, what’s the matter?” she said, looking–with more surprise than I
had counted upon–at my hands (I was involuntarily folding and tearing and
crushing and tearing again the innocent pink napkin). My smiling face set
her somewhat at ease, however.
“The matter is quite simple,” I replied. “Even in the most harmonious
of households, as ours is, not all decisions are taken by the female
partner. There are certain things that the husband is there to decide. I can
well imagine the thrill that you, a healthy American gal, must experience at
crossing the Atlantic on the same ocean liner with Lady Bumble–or Sam
Bumble, the Frozen Meat King, or a Hollywood harlot. And I doubt not that
you and I would make a pretty ad for the Traveling Agency when portrayed
looking–you, frankly starry-eyed, I, controlling my envious admiration–at
the Palace Sentries, or Scarlet Guards, or Beaver Eaters, or whatever they
are called. But I happen to be allergic to Europe, including merry old
England. As you well know, I have nothing but very sad associations with the
Old and rotting World. No colored ads in your magazines will change the
situation.”
“My darling,” said Charlotte. “I really–”
“No, wait a minute. The present matter is only incidental. I am
concerned with a general trend. When you wanted me to spend my afternoons
sunbathing on the Lake instead of doing my work, I gladly gave in and became
a bronzed glamour boy for your sake, instead of remaining a scholar and,
well, an educator. When you lead me to bridge and bourbon with the charming
Farlows, I meekly follow. No, please, wait. When you decorate your home, I
do not interfere with your schemes. When you decide–when you decide all
kinds of matters, I may be in complete, or in partial, let us say,
disagreement–but I say nothing. I ignore the particular. I cannot ignore
the general. I love being bossed by you, but every game has its rules. I am
not cross. I am not cross at all. Don’t do that. But I am one half of this
household, and have a small but distinct voice.”
She had come to my side and had fallen on her knees and was slowly, but
very vehemently, shaking her head and clawing at my trousers. She said she
had never realized. She said I was her ruler and her god. She said Louise
had gone, and let us make love right away. She said I must forgive her or
she would die.
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This little incident filled me with considerable elation. I told her
quietly that it was a matter not of asking forgiveness, but of changing
one’s ways; and I resolved to press my advantage and spend a good deal of
time, aloof and moody, working at my book–or at least pretending to work.
The “studio bed” in my former room had long been converted into the
sofa it had always been at heart, and Charlotte had warned me since the very
beginning of our cohabitation that gradually the room would be turned into a
regular “writer’s den.” A couple of days after the British Incident, I was
sitting in a new and very comfortable easy chair, with a large volume in my
lap, when Charlotte rapped with her ring finger and sauntered in. How
different were her movements from those of my Lolita, when she used
to visit me in her dear dirty blue jeans, smelling of orchards in
nymphetland; awkward and fey, and dimly depraved, the lower buttons of her
shirt unfastened. Let me tell you, however, something. Behind the brashness
of little Haze, and the poise of big Haze, a trickle of shy life ran that
tasted the same, that murmured the same. A great French doctor once told my
father that in near relatives the faintest gastric gurgle has the same
“voice.”
So Charlotte sauntered in. She felt all was not well between us. I had
pretended to fall asleep the night before, and the night before that, as
soon as we had gone to bed, and had risen at dawn.
Tenderly, she inquired if she were not “interrupting.”
“Not at the moment,” I said, turning volume C of the Girls’
Encyclopedia around to examine a picture printed “bottom-edge” as
printers say.
Charlotte went up to a little table of imitation mahogany with a
drawer. She put her hand upon it. The little table was ugly, no doubt, but
it had done nothing to her.
“I have always wanted to ask you,” she said (businesslike, not
coquettish), “why is this thing locked up? Do you want it in this room? It’s
so abominably uncouth.”
“Leave it alone,” I said. I was Camping in Scandinavia.
“Is there a key?”
“Hidden.”
“Oh, Hum . . . ”
“Locked up love letters.”
She gave me one of those wounded-doe looks that irritated me so much,
and then, not quite knowing if I was serious, or how to keep up the
conversation, stood for several slow pages (Campus, Canada, Candid Camera,
Candy) peering at the window pane rather than through it, drumming upon it
with sharp almond-and-rose fingernails.
Presently (at Canoeing or Canvasback) she strolled up to my chair and
sank down, tweedily, weightily, on its arm, inundating me with the perfume
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my first wife had used. “Would his lordship like to spend the fall
here?” she asked, pointing with her little finger at an autumn view
in a conservative Eastern State. “Why?” (very distinctly and slowly). She
shrugged. (Probably Harold used to take a vacation at that time. Open
season. Conditional reflex on her part.)
“I think I know where that is,” she said, still pointing. “There is a
hotel I remember, Enchanted Hunters, quaint, isn’t it? And the food is a
dream. And nobody bothers anybody.”
She rubbed her cheek against my temple. Valeria soon got over that.
“Is there anything special you would like for dinner, dear? John and
Jean will drop in later.”
I answered with a grunt. She kissed me on my underlip, and, brightly
saying she would bake a cake (a tradition subsisted from my lodging days
that I adored her cakes), left me to my idleness.
Carefully putting down the open book where she had sat (it attempted to
send forth a rotation of waves, but an inserted pencil stopped the pages), I
checked the hiding place of the key: rather self-consciously it lay under
the old expensive safety razor I had used before she bought me a much better
and cheaper one. Was it the perfect hiding place–there, under the razor, in
the groove of its velvet-lined case? The case lay in a small trunk where I
kept various business papers. Could I improve upon this? Remarkable how
difficult it is to conceal things–especially when one’s wife keeps
monkeying with the furniture.
22
I think it was exactly a week after our last swim that the noon mail
brought a reply from the second Miss Phalen. The lady wrote she had just
returned to St. Algebra from her sister’s funeral. “Euphemia had never been
the same after breaking that hip.” As to the matter of Mrs. Humbert’s
daughter, she wished to report that it was too late to enroll her this year;
but that she, the surviving Phalen, was practically certain that if Mr. and
Mrs. Humbert brought Dolores over in January, her admittance might be
arranged.
Next day, after lunch, I went to see “our” doctor, a friendly fellow
whose perfect bedside manner and complete reliance on a few patented drugs
adequately masked his ignorance of, and indifference to, medical science.
The fact that Lo would have to come back to Ramsdale was a treasure of
anticipation. For this event I wanted to be fully prepared. I had in fact
begun my campaign earlier, before Charlotte made that cruel decision of
hers. I had to be sure when my lovely child arrived, that very night, and
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then night after night, until St. Algebra took her away from me, I would
possess the means of putting two creatures to sleep so thoroughly that
neither sound nor touch should rouse them. Throughout most of July I had
been experimenting with various sleeping powders, trying them out on
Charlotte, a great taker of pills. The last dose I had given her (she
thought it was a tablet of mild bromides–to anoint her nerves) had knocked
her out for four solid hours. I had put the radio at full blast. I had
blazed in her face an olisbos-like flashlight. I had pushed her, pinched
her, prodded her–and nothing had disturbed the rhythm of her calm and
powerful breathing. However, when I had done such a simple thing as kiss
her, she had awakened at once, as fresh and strong as an octopus (I barely
escaped). This would not do, I thought; had to get something still safer. At
first, Dr. Byron did not seem to believe me when I said his last
prescription was no match for my insomnia. He suggested I try again, and for
a moment diverted my attention by showing me photographs of his family. He
had a fascinating child of Dolly’s age; but I saw through his tricks and
insisted he prescribe the mightiest pill extant. He suggested I play golf,
but finally agreed to give me something that, he said, “would really work”;
and going to a cabinet, he produced a vial of violet-blue capsules banded
with dark purple at one end, which, he said, had just been placed on the
market and were intended not for neurotics whom a draft of water could calm
if properly administered, but only for great sleepless artists who had to
die for a few hours in order to live for centuries. I love to fool doctors,
and though inwardly rejoicing, pocketed the pills with a skeptical shrug.
Incidentally, I had had to be careful with him. Once, in another connection,
a stupid lapse on my part made me mention my last sanatorium, and I thought
I saw the tips of his ears twitch. Being not at all keen for Charlotte or
anybody else to know that period of my past, I had hastily explained that I
had once done some research among the insane for a novel. But no matter; the
old rogue certainly had a sweet girleen.
I left in great spirits. Steering my wife’s car with one finger, I
contentedly rolled homeward. Ramsdale had, after all, lots of charm. The
cicadas whirred; the avenue had been freshly watered. Smoothly, almost
silkily, I turned down into our steep little street. Everything was somehow
so right that day. So blue and green. I knew the sun shone because my
ignition key was reflected in the windshield; and I knew it was exactly half
past three because the nurse who came to massage Miss Opposite every
afternoon was tripping down the narrow sidewalk in her white stockings and
shoes. As usual, Junk’s hysterical setter attacked me as I rolled downhill,
and as usual, the local paper was lying on the porch where it had just been
hurled by Kenny.
The day before I had ended the regime of aloofness I had imposed upon
myself, and now uttered a cheerful homecoming call as I opened the door of
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the living room. With her ream-white nape and bronze bun to me, wearing the
yellow blouse and maroon slacks she had on when I first met her, Charlotte
sat at the corner bureau writing a letter. My hand still on the doorknob, I
repeated my hearty cry. Her writing hand stopped. She sat still for a
moment; then she slowly turned in her chair and rested her elbow on its
curved back. Her face, disfigured by her emotion, was not a pretty sight as
she stared at my legs and said:
“The Haze woman, the big bitch, the old cat, the obnoxious mamma,
the–the old stupid Haze is no longer your dupe. She has–she has . . .”
My fair accuser stopped, swallowing her venom and her tears. Whatever
Humbert Humbert said–or attempted to say–is inessential. She went on:
“You’re a monster. You’re a detestable, abominable, criminal fraud. If
you come near–I’ll scream out the window. Get back!”
Again, whatever H.H. murmured may be omitted, I think.
“I am leaving tonight. This is all yours. Only you’ll never, never see
that miserable brat again. Get out of this room.”
Reader, I did. I went up to the ex-semi-studio. Arms akimbo, I stood
for a moment quite still and self-composed, surveying from the threshold the
raped little table with its open drawer, a key hanging from the lock, four
other household keys on the table top. I walked across the landing into the
Humberts’ bedroom, and calmly removed my diary from under her pillow into my
pocket. Then I started to walk downstairs, but stopped half-way: she was
talking on the telephone which happened to be plugged just outside the door
of the living room. I wanted to hear what she was saying: she canceled an
order for something or other, and returned to the parlor. I rearranged my
respiration and went through the hallway to the kitchen. There, I opened a
bottle of Scotch. She could never resist Scotch. Then I walked into the
dining room and from there, through the half-open door, contemplated
Charlotte’s broad back.
“You are ruining my life and yours,” I said quietly. “Let us be
civilized people. It is all your hallucination. You are crazy, Charlotte.
The notes you found were fragments of a novel. Your name and hers were put
in by mere chance. Just because they came handy. Think it over. I shall
bring you a drink.”
She neither answered nor turned, but went on writing in a scorching
scrawl whatever she was writing. A third letter, presumably (two in stamped
envelopes were already laid out on the desk). I went back to the kitchen.
I set out two glasses (to St. Algebra? to Lo?) and opened the
refrigerator. It roared at me viciously while I removed the ice from its
heart. Rewrite. Let her read it again. She will not recall details. Change,
forge. Write a fragment and show it to her or leave it lying around. Why do
faucets sometimes whine so horribly? A horrible situation, really. The
little pillow-shaped blocks of ice–pillows for polar teddy bear,
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Lo–emitted rasping, crackling, tortured sounds as the warm water loosened
them in their cells. I bumped down the glasses side by side. I poured in the
whiskey and a dram of soda. She had tabooed my pin. Bark and bang went the
icebox. Carrying the glasses, I walked through the dining room and spoke
through the parlor door which was a fraction ajar, not quite space enough
for my elbow.
“I have made you a drink,” I said.
She did not answer, the mad bitch, and I placed the glasses on the
sideboard near the telephone, which had started to ring.
“Leslie speaking. Leslie Tomson,” said Leslie Tomson who favored a dip
at dawn. “Mrs. Humbert, sir, has been run over and you’d better come quick.”
I answered, perhaps a bit testily, that my wife was safe and sound, and
still holding the receiver, I pushed open the door and said:
“There’s this man saying you’ve been killed, Charlotte.”
But there was no Charlotte in the living room.
23
I rushed out. The far side of our steep little street presented a
peculiar sight. A big black glossy Packard had climbed Miss Opposite’s
sloping lawn at an angle from the sidewalk (where a tartan laprobe had
dropped in a heap), and stood there, shining in the sun, its doors open like
wings, its front wheels deep in evergreen shrubbery. To the anatomical right
of this car, on the trim turn of the lawn-slope, an old gentleman with a
white mustache, well-dressed–double-breasted gray suit, polka-dotted
bow-tie–lay supine, his long legs together, like a death-size wax figure. I
have to put the impact of an instantaneous vision into a sequence of words;
their physical accumulation in the page impairs the actual flash, the sharp
unity of impression: Rug-heap, car, old man-doll, Miss O.’s nurse running
with a rustle, a half-empty tumbler in her hand, back to the screened
porch–where the propped-up, imprisoned, decrepit lady herself may be
imagined screeching, but not loud enough to drown the rhythmical yaps of the
Junk setter walking from group to group–from a bunch of neighbors already
collected on the sidewalk, near the bit of checked stuff, and back to the
car which he had finally run to earth, and then to another group on the
lawn, consisting of Leslie, two policemen and a sturdy man with tortoise
shell glasses. At this point, I should explain that the prompt appearance of
the patrolmen, hardly more than a minute after the accident, was due to
their having been ticketing the illegally parked cars in a cross lane two
blocks down the grade; that the fellow with the glasses was Frederick Beale,
Jr., driver of the Packard; that his 79-year-old father, whom the nurse had
just watered on the green bank where he lay–a banked banker so to
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speak–was not in a dead faint, but was comfortably and methodically
recovering from a mild heart attack or its possibility; and, finally, that
the laprobe on the sidewalk (where she had so often pointed out to me with
disapproval the crooked green cracks) concealed the mangled remains of
Charlotte Humbert who had been knocked down and dragged several feet by the
Beale car as she was hurrying across the street to drop three letters in the
mailbox, at the corner of Miss Opposite’s lawn. These were picked up and
handed to me by a pretty child in a dirty pink frock, and I got rid of them
by clawing them to fragments in my trouser pocket.
Three doctors and the Farlows presently arrived on the scene and took
over. The widower, a man of exceptional self-control, neither wept nor
raved. He staggered a bit, that he did; but he opened his mouth only to
impart such information or issue such directions as were strictly necessary
in connection with the identification, examination and disposal of a dead
woman, the top of her head a porridge of bone, brains, bronze hair and
blood. The sun was still a blinding red when he was put to bed in Dolly’s
room by his two friends, gentle John and dewy-eyed Jean; who, to be near,
retired to the Humberts’ bedroom for the night; which, for all I know, they
may not have spent as innocently as the solemnity of the occasion required.
I have no reason to dwell, in this very special memoir, on the
pre-funeral formalities that had to be attended to, or on the funeral
itself, which was as quiet as the marriage had been. But a few incidents
pertaining to those four or five days after Charlotte’s simple death, have
to be noted.
My first night of widowhood I was so drunk that I slept as soundly as
the child who had slept in that bed. Next morning I hastened to inspect the
fragments of letters in my pocket. They had got too thoroughly mixed up to
be sorted into three complete sets. I assumed that “. . . and you had better
find it because I cannot buy . . . ” came from a letter to Lo; and other
fragments seemed to point to Charlotte’s intention of fleeing with Lo to
Parkington, or even back to Pisky, lest the vulture snatch her precious
lamb. Other tatters and shreds (never had I thought I had such strong
talons) obviously referred to an application not to St. A. but to another
boarding school which was said to be so harsh and gray and gaunt in its
methods (although supplying croquet under the elms) as to have earned the
nickname of “Reformatory for Young Ladies.” Finally, the third epistle was
obviously addressed to me. I made out such items as “. . . after a year of
separation we may . . . ” “. . . oh, my dearest, oh my . . . ” “. . . worse
than if it had been a woman you kept . . .” “. . . or, maybe, I shall die .
. .” But on the whole my gleanings made little sense; the various fragments
of those three hasty missives were as jumbled in the palms of my hands as
their elements had been in poor Charlotte’s head.
That day John had to see a customer, and Jean had to feed her dogs, and
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so I was to be deprived temporarily of my friends’ company. The dear people
were afraid I might commit suicide if left alone, and since no other friends
were available (Miss Opposite was incommunicado, the McCoos were busy
building a new house miles away, and the Chatfields had been recently called
to Maine by some family trouble of their own), Leslie and Louise were
commissioned to keep me company under the pretense of helping me to sort out
and pack a multitude of orphaned things. In a moment of superb inspiration I
showed the kind and credulous Farlows (we were waiting for Leslie to come
for his paid tryst with Louise) a little photograph of Charlotte I had found
among her affairs. From a boulder she smiled through blown hair. It had been
taken in April 1934, a memorable spring. While on a business visit to the
States, I had had occasion to spend several months in Pisky. We met–and had
a mad love affair. I was married, alas, and she was engaged to Haze, but
after I returned to Europe, we corresponded through a friend, now dead. Jean
whispered she had heard some rumors and looked at the snapshot, and, still
looking, handed it to John, and John removed his pipe and looked at lovely
and fast Charlotte Becker, and handed it back to me. Then they left for a
few hours. Happy Louise was gurgling and scolding her swain in the basement.
Hardly had the Farlows gone than a blue-chinned cleric called–and I
tried to make the interview as brief as was consistent with neither hurting
his feelings nor arousing his doubts. Yes, I would devote all my life to the
child’s welfare. Here, incidentally, was a little cross that Charlotte
Becker had given me when we were both young. I had a female cousin, a
respectable spinster in New York. There we would find a good private school
for Dolly. Oh, what a crafty Humbert!
For the benefit of Leslie and Louise who might (and did) report it to
John and Jean I made a tremendously loud and beautifully enacted
long-distance call and simulated a conversation with Shirley Holmes. When
John and Jean returned, I completely took them in by telling them, in a
deliberately wild and confused mutter, that Lo had gone with the
intermediate group on a five-day hike and could not be reached.
“Good Lord,” said Jean, “what shall we do?”
John said it was perfectly simple–he would get the Climax police to
find the hikers–it would not take them an hour. In fact, he knew the
country and–
“Look,” he continued, “why don’ I drive there right now, and you may
sleep with Jean”–(he did not really add that but Jean supported his offer
so passionately that it might be implied).
I broke down. I pleaded with John to let things remain the way they
were. I said I could not bear to have the child all around me, sobbing,
clinging to me, she was so high-strung, the experience might react on her
future, psychiatrists have analyzed such cases. There was a sudden pause.
“Well, you are the doctor,” said John a little bluntly. “But after all
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I was Charlotte’s friend and adviser. One would like to know what you are
going to do about the child anyway.”
“John,” cried Jean, “she is his child, not Harold Haze’s. Don’t you
understand? Humbert is Dolly’s real father.”
“I see,” said John. “I am sorry. Yes. I see. I did not realize that. It
simplifies matters, of course. And whatever you feel is right.”
The distraught father went on to say he would go and fetch his delicate
daughter immediately after the funeral, and would do his best to give her a
good time in totally different surroundings, perhaps a trip to New Mexico or
California–granted, of course, he lived.
So artistically did I impersonate the calm of ultimate despair, the
hush before some crazy outburst, that the perfect Farlows removed me to
their house. They had a good cellar, as cellars go in this country; and that
was helpful, for I feared insomnia and a ghost.
Now I must explain my reasons for keeping Dolores away.
Naturally, at first, when Charlotte had just been eliminated and I
re-entered the house a free father, and gulped down the two
whiskey-and-sodas I had prepared, and topped them with a pint or two of my
“pin,” and went to the bathroom to get away from neighbors and friends,
there was but one thing in my mind and pulse–namely, the awareness that a
few hours hence, warm, brown–haired, and mine, mine, mine, Lolita would be
in my arms, shedding tears that I would kiss away faster than they could
well. But as I stood wide-eyed and flushed before the mirror, John Farlow
tenderly tapped to inquire if I was okay–and I immediately realized it
would be madness on my part to have her in the house with all those
busybodies milling around and scheming to take her away from me. Indeed,
unpredictable Lo herself might–who knows?–show some foolish distrust of
me, a sudden repugnance, vague fear and the like–and gone would be the
magic prize at the very instant of triumph.
Speaking of busybodies, I had another visitor–friend Beale, the fellow
who eliminated my wife. Stodgy and solemn, looking like a kind of assistant
executioner, with his bulldog jowls, small black eyes, thickly rimmed
glasses and conspicuous nostrils, he was ushered in by John who then left
us, closing the door upon us, with the utmost tact. Suavely saying he had
twins in my stepdaughter’s class, my grotesque visitor unrolled a large
diagram he had made of the accident. It was, as my stepdaughter would have
put it, “a beaut,” with all kinds of impressive arrows and dotted lines in
varicolored inks. Mrs. H.H.’s trajectory was illustrated at several points
by a series of those little outline figures–doll-like wee career girl or
WAC–used in statistics as visual aids. Very clearly and conclusively, this
route came into contact with a boldly traced sinuous line representing two
consecutive swerves–one which the Beale car made to avoid the Junk dog (dog
not shown), and the second, a kind of exaggerated continuation of the first,
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meant to avert the tragedy. A very black cross indicated the spot where the
trim little outline figure had at last come to rest on the sidewalk. I
looked for some similar mark to denote the place on the embankment where my
visitor’s huge wax father had reclined, but there was none. That gentleman,
however, had signed the document as a witness underneath the name of Leslie
Tomson, Miss Opposite and a few other people.
With his hummingbird pencil deftly and delicately flying from one point
to another, Frederick demonstrated his absolute innocence and the
recklessness of my wife: while he was in the act of avoiding the dog,
she slipped on the freshly watered asphalt and plunged forward
whereas she should have flung herself not forward but backward (Fred showed
how by a jerk of his padded shoulder). I said it was certainly not his
fault, and the inquest upheld my view.
Breathing violently though jet-black tense nostrils, he shook his head
and my hand; then, with an air of perfect savoir vivre and
gentlemanly generosity, he offered to pay the funeral-home expenses. He
expected me to refuse his offer. With a drunken sob of gratitude I accepted
it. This took him aback. Slowly, incredulously, he repeated what he had
said. I thanked him again, even more profusely than before.
In result of that weird interview, the numbness of my soul was for a
moment resolved. And no wonder! I had actually seen the agent of fate. I had
palpated the very flesh of fate–and its padded shoulder. A brilliant and
monstrous mutation had suddenly taken place, and here was the instrument.
Within the intricacies of the pattern (hurrying housewife, slippery
pavement, a pest of a dog, steep grade, big car, baboon at its wheel), I
could dimly distinguish my own vile contribution. Had I not been such a
fool–or such an intuitive genius–to preserve that journal, fluids produced
by vindictive anger and hot shame would not have blinded Charlotte in her
dash to the mailbox. But even had they blinded her, still nothing might have
happened, had not precise fate, that synchronizing phantom, mixed within its
alembic the car and the dog and the sun and the shade and the wet and the
weak and the strong and the stone. Adieu, Marlene! Fat fate’s formal
handshake (as reproduced by Beale before leaving the room) brought me out of
my torpor; and I wept. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury–I wept.
24
The elms and the poplars were turning their ruffled backs to a sudden
onslaught of wind, and a black thunderhead loomed above Ramsdale’s white
church tower when I looked around me for the last time. For unknown
adventures I was leaving the livid house where I had rented a room only ten
weeks before. The shades–thrifty, practical bamboo shades–were already
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down. On porches or in the house their rich textures lend modern drama. The
house of heaven must seem pretty bare after that. A raindrop fell on my
knuckles. I went back into the house for something or other while John was
putting my bags into the car, and then a funny thing happened. I do not know
if in these tragic notes I have sufficiently stressed the peculiar “sending”
effect that the writer’s good looks–pseudo-Celtic, attractively simian,
boyishly manly–had on women of every age and environment. Of course, such
announcements made in the first person may sound ridiculous. But every once
in a while I have to remind the reader of my appearance much as a
professional novelist, who has given a character of his some mannerism or a
dog, has to go on producing that dog or that mannerism every time the
character crops up in the course of the book. There may be more to it in the
present case. My gloomy good looks should be kept in the mind’s eye if my
story is to be properly understood. Pubescent Lo swooned to Humbert’s charm
as she did to hiccuppy music; adult Lotte loved me with a mature, possessive
passion that I now deplore and respect more than I care to say. Jean Farlow,
who was thirty-one and absolutely neurotic, had also apparently developed a
strong liking for me. She was handsome in a carved-Indian sort of way, with
a burnt sienna complexion. Her lips were like large crimson polyps, and when
she emitted her special barking laugh, she showed large dull teeth and pale
gums.
She was very tall, wore either slacks with sandals or billowing skirts
with ballet slippers, drank any strong liquor in any amount, had had two
miscarriages, wrote stories about animals, painted, as the reader knows,
lakescapes, was already nursing the cancer that was to kill her at
thirty-three, and was hopelessly unattractive to me. Judge then of my alarm
when a few seconds before I left (she and I stood in the hallway) Jean, with
her always trembling fingers, took me by the temples, and, tears in her
bright blue eyes, attempted, unsuccessfully, to glue herself to my lips.
“Take care of yourself,” she said, “kiss your daughter for me.”
A clap of thunder reverberated throughout the house, and she added:
“Perhaps, somewhere, some day, at a less miserable time, we may see
each other again” (Jean, whatever, wherever you are, in minus time-space or
plus soul-time, forgive me all this, parenthesis included).
And presently I was shaking hands with both of them in the street, the
sloping street, and everything was whirling and flying before the
approaching white deluge, and a truck with a mattress from Philadelphia was
confidently rolling down to an empty house, and dust was running and
writhing over the exact slab of stone where Charlotte, when they lifted the
laprobe for me, had been revealed, curled up, her eyes intact, their black
lashes still wet, matted, like yours, Lolita.
25
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One might suppose that with all blocks removed and a prospect of
delirious and unlimited delights before me, I would have mentally sunk back,
heaving a sigh of delicious relief. Eh bien, pas du tout! Instead of
basking in the beams of smiling Chance, I was obsessed by all sorts of
purely ethical doubts and fears. For instance: might it not surprise people
that Lo was so consistently debarred from attending festive and funeral
functions in her immediate family? You remember–we had not had her at our
wedding. Or another thing: granted it was the long hairy arm of Coincidence
that had reached out to remove an innocent woman, might Coincidence not
ignore in a heathen moment what its twin lamb had done and hand Lo a
premature note of commiseration? True, the accident had been reported only
by the Ramsdale Journal–not by the Parkington Recorder or the
Climax Herald, Camp Q being in another state, and local deaths having
no federal news interest; but I could not help fancying that somehow Dolly
Haze had been informed already, and that at the very time I was on my way to
fetch her, she was being driven to Ramsdale by friends unknown to me. Still
more disquieting than all these conjectures and worries, was the fact that
Humbert Humbert, a brand-new American citizen of obscure European origin,
had taken no steps toward becoming the legal guardian of his dead wife’s
daughter (twelve years and seven months old). Would I ever dare take those
steps? I could not repress a shiver whenever I imagined my nudity hemmed in
by mysterious statutes in the merciless glare of the Common Law.
My scheme was a marvel of primitive art: I would whizz over to Camp Q,
tell Lolita her mother was about to undergo a major operation at an invented
hospital, and then keep moving with my sleepy nymphet from inn to inn while
her mother got better and better and finally died. But as I traveled
campward my anxiety grew. I could not bear to think I might not find Lolita
there–or find, instead, another, scared, Lolita clamoring for some family
friend: not the Farlows, thank God–she hardly knew them–but might there
not be other people I had not reckoned with? Finally, I decided to make the
long-distance call I had simulated so well a few days before. It was raining
hard when I pulled up in a muddy suburb of Parkington, just before the Fork,
one prong of which bypassed the city and led to the highway which crossed
the hills to Lake Climax and Camp Q. I flipped off the ignition and for
quite a minute sat in the car bracing myself for that telephone call, and
staring at the rain, at the inundated sidewalk, at a hydrant: a hideous
thing, really, painted a thick silver and red, extending the red stumps of
its arms to be varnished by the rain which like stylized blood dripped upon
its argent chains. No wonder that stopping beside those nightmare cripples
is taboo. I drove up to a gasoline station. A surprise awaited me when at
last the coins had satisfactorily clanked down and a voice was allowed to
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answer mine.
Holmes, the camp mistress, informed me that Dolly had gone Monday (this
was Wednesday) on a hike in the hills with her group and was expected to
return rather late today. Would I care to come tomorrow, and what was
exactly–Without going into details, I said that her mother was
hospitalized, that the situation was grave, that the child should not be
told it was grave and that she should be ready to leave with me tomorrow
afternoon. The two voices parted in an explosion of warmth and good will,
and through some freak mechanical flaw all my coins came tumbling back to me
with a hitting-the-jackpot clatter that almost made me laugh despite the
disappointment at having to postpone bliss. One wonders if this sudden
discharge, this spasmodic refund, was not correlated somehow, in the mind of
McFate, with my having invented that little expedition before ever learning
of it as I did now.
What next? I proceeded to the business center of Parkington and devoted
the whole afternoon (the weather had cleared, the wet town was like
silver-and-glass) to buying beautiful things for Lo. Goodness, what crazy
purchases were prompted by the poignant predilection Humbert had in those
days for check weaves, bright cottons, frills, puffed-out short sleeves,
soft pleats, snug-fitting bodices and generously full skirts! Oh Lolita, you
are my girl, as Vee was Poe’s and Bea Dante’s, and what little girl would
not like to whirl in a circular skirt and scanties? Did I have something
special in mind? coaxing voices asked me. Swimming suits? We have them in
all shades. Dream pink, frosted aqua, glans mauve, tulip red, oolala black.
What about playsuits? Slips? No slips. Lo and I loathed slips.
One of my guides in these matters was an anthropometric entry made by
her mother on Lo’s twelfth birthday (the reader remembers that
Know-Your-Child book). I had the feeling that Charlotte, moved by obscure
motives of envy and dislike, had added an inch here, a pound there; but
since the nymphet had no doubt grown somewhat in the last seven months, I
thought I could safely accept most of those January measurements: hip girth,
twenty-nine inches; thigh girth (just below the gluteal sulcus), seventeen;
calf girth and neck circumference, eleven; chest circumference,
twenty-seven; upper arm girth, eight; waist, twenty-three; stature,
fifty-seven inches; weight, seventy-eight pounds; figure, linear;
intelligence quotient, 121; vermiform appendix present, thank God.
Apart from measurements, I could of course visualize Lolita with
hallucinational lucidity; and nursing as I did a tingle on my breastbone at
the exact spot her silky top had come level once or twice with my heart; and
feeling as I did her warm weight in my lap (so that, in a sense, I was
always “with Lolita” as a woman is “with child”), I was not surprised to
discover later that my computation had been more or less correct. Having
moreover studied a midsummer sale book, it was with a very knowing air that
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I examined various pretty articles, sport shoes, sneakers, pumps of crushed
kid for crushed kids. The painted girl in black who attended to all these
poignant needs of mine turned parental scholarship and precise description
into commercial euphemisms, such as “petite.” Another, much older
woman, in a white dress, with a pancake make-up, seemed to be oddly
impressed by my knowledge of junior fashions; perhaps I had a midget for
mistress; so, when shown a skirt with “cute” pockets in front, I
intentionally put a naive male question and was rewarded by a smiling
demonstration of the way the zipper worked in the back of the skirt. I had
next great fun with all kinds of shorts and briefs–phantom little Lolitas
dancing, falling, daisying all over the counter. We rounded up the deal with
some prim cotton pajamas in popular butcher-boy style. Humbert, the popular
butcher.
There is a touch of the mythological and the enchanted in those large
stores where according to ads a career girl can get a complete desk-to-date
wardrobe, and where little sister can dream of the day when her wool jersey
will make the boys in the back row of the classroom drool. Life-size plastic
figures of snubbed-nosed children with dun-colored, greenish, brown-dotted,
faunish faces floated around me. I realized I was the only shopper in that
rather eerie place where I moved about fishlike, in a glaucous aquarium. I
sensed strange thoughts form in the minds of the languid ladies that
escorted me from counter to counter, from rock ledge to seaweed, and the
belts and the bracelets I chose seemed to fall from siren hands into
transparent water. I bought an elegant valise, had my purchases put into it,
and repaired to the nearest hotel, well pleased with my day.
Somehow, in connection with that quiet poetical afternoon of fastidious
shopping, I recalled the hotel or inn with the seductive name of The
Enchanted Hunters with Charlotte had happened to mention shortly before my
liberation. With the help of a guidebook I located it in the secluded town
of Briceland, a four-hour drive from Lo’s camp. I could have telephoned but
fearing my voice might go out of control and lapse into coy croaks of broken
English, I decided to send a wire ordering a room with twin beds for the
next night. What a comic, clumsy, wavering Prince Charming I was! How some
of my readers will laugh at me when I tell them the trouble I had with the
wording of my telegram! What should I put: Humbert and daughter? Humberg and
small daughter? Homberg and immature girl? Homburg and child? The droll
mistake–the “g” at the end–which eventually came through may have been a
telepathic echo of these hesitations of mine.
And then, in the velvet of a summer night, my broodings over the philer
I had with me! Oh miserly Hamburg! Was he not a very Enchanted Hunter as he
deliberated with himself over his boxful of magic ammunition? To rout the
monster of insomnia should he try himself one of those amethyst capsules?
There were forty of them, all told–forty nights with a frail little sleeper
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at my throbbing side; could I rob myself of one such night in order to
sleep? Certainly not: much too precious was each tiny plum, each microscopic
planetarium with its live stardust. Oh, let me be mawkish for the nonce! I
am so tired of being cynical.
26
This daily headache in the opaque air of this tombal jail is
disturbing, but I must persevere. Have written more than a hundred pages and
not got anywhere yet. My calendar is getting confused. That must have been
around August 15, 1947. Don’t think I can go on. Heart, head–everything.
Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita,
Lolita. Repeat till the page is full, printer.
27
Still in Parkington. Finally, I did achieve an hour’s slumber–from
which I was aroused by gratuitous and horribly exhausting congress with a
small hairy hermaphrodite, a total stranger. By then it was six in the
morning, and it suddenly occurred to me it might be a good thing to arrive
at the camp earlier than I had said. From Parkington I had still a hundred
miles to go, and there would be more than that to the Hazy Hills and
Briceland. If I had said I would come for Dolly in the afternoon, it was
only because my fancy insisted on merciful night falling as soon as possible
upon my impatience. But now I foresaw all kinds of misunderstandings and was
all a-jitter lest delay might give her the opportunity of some idle
telephone call to Ramsdale. However, when at 9.30 a.m. I attempted to start,
I was confronted by a dead battery, and noon was nigh when at last I left
Parkington.
I reached my destination around half past two; parked my car in a pine
grove where a green-shirted, redheaded impish lad stood throwing horseshoes
in sullen solitude; was laconically directed by him to an office in a stucco
cottage; in a dying state, had to endure for several minutes the inquisitive
commiseration of the camp mistress, a sluttish worn out female with rusty
hair. Dolly she said was all packed and ready to go. She knew her mother was
sick but not critically. Would Mr. Haze, I mean, Mr. Humbert, care to meet
the camp counselors? Or look at the cabins where the girls live? Each
dedicated to a Disney creature? Or visit the Lodge? Or should Charlie be
sent over to fetch her? The girls were just finishing fixing the Dining Room
for a dance. (And perhaps afterwards she would say to somebody or other:
“The poor guy looked like his own ghost.”)
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Let me retain for a moment that scene in all its trivial and fateful
detail: hag Holmes writing out a receipt, scratching her head, pulling a
drawer out of her desk, pouring change into my impatient palm, then neatly
spreading a banknote over it with a bright “. . . and five!”; photographs of
girl-children; some gaudy moth or butterfly, still alive, safely pinned to
the wall (“nature study”); the framed diploma of the camp’s dietitian; my
trembling hands; a card produced by efficient Holmes with a report of Dolly
Haze’s behavior for July (“fair to good; keen on swimming and boating”); a
sound of trees and birds, and my pounding heart . . . I was standing with my
back to the open door, and then I felt the blood rush to my head as I heart
her respiration and voice behind me. She arrived dragging and bumping her
heavy suitcase. “Hi!” she said, and stood still, looking at me with sly,
glad eyes, her soft lips parted in a slightly foolish but wonderfully
endearing smile.
She was thinner and taller, and for a second it seemed to me her face
was less pretty than the mental imprint I had cherished for more than a
month: her cheeks looked hollowed and too much lentigo camouflaged her rosy
rustic features; and that first impression (a very narrow human interval
between two tiger heartbeats) carried the clear implication that all widower
Humbert had to do, wanted to do, or would do, was to give this wan-looking
though sun-colored little orphan au yeux battus (and even those
plumbaceous umbrae under her eyes bore freckles) a sound education, a
healthy and happy girlhood, a clean home, nice girl-friends of her age among
whom (if the fates deigned to repay me) I might find, perhaps, a pretty
little Magdlein for Herr Doktor Humbert alone. But “in a wink,” as
the Germans say, the angelic line of conduct was erased, and I overtook my
prey (time moves ahead of our fancies!), and she was my Lolita again–in
fact, more of my Lolita than ever. I let my hand rest on her warm auburn
head and took up her bag. She was all rose and honey, dressed in her
brightest gingham, with a pattern of little red apples, and her arms and
legs were of a deep golden brown, with scratches like tiny dotted lines of
coagulated rubies, and the ribbed cuffs of her white socks were turned down
at the remembered level, and because of her childish gait, or because I had
memorized her as always wearing heelless shoes, her saddle oxfords looked
somehow too large and too high-heeled for her. Good-bye, Camp Q, merry Camp
Q. Good-bye, plain unwholesome food, good-bye Charlie boy. In the hot car
she settled down beside me, slapped a prompt fly on her lovely knee; then,
her mouth working violently on a piece of chewing gum, she rapidly cranked
down the window on her side and settled back again. We sped through the
striped and speckled forest.
“How’s Mother?” she asked dutifully.
I said the doctors did not quite know yet what the trouble was. Anyway,
something abdominal. Abominable? No, abdominal. We would have to hang around
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for a while. The hospital was in the country, near the gay town of
Lepingville, where a great poet had resided in the early nineteenth century
and where we would take in all the shows. She thought it a peachy idea and
wondered if we could make Lepingville before nine p.m.
“We should be at Briceland by dinner time,” I said, “and tomorrow we’ll
visit Lepingville. How was the hike? Did you have a marvelous time at the
camp?”
“Uh-huh.”
“Sorry to leave?”
“Un-un.”
“Talk, Lo–don’t grunt. Tell me something.”
“What thing, Dad?” (she let the word expand with ironic deliberation).
“Any old thing.”
“Okay, if I call you that?” (eyes slit at the road).
“Quite.”
“It’s a sketch, you know. When did you fall for my mummy?”
“Some day, Lo, you will understand many emotions and situations, such
as for example the harmony, the beauty of spiritual relationship.”
“Bah!” said the cynical nymphet.
Shallow lull in the dialogue, filled with some landscape.
“Look, Lo, at all those cows on that hillside.”
“I think I’ll vomit if I look at a cow again.”
“You know, I missed you terribly, Lo.”
“I did not. Fact I’ve been revoltingly unfaithful to you, but it
does not matter one bit, because you’ve stopped caring for me, anyway. You
drive much faster than my mummy, mister.”
I slowed down from a blind seventy to a purblind fifty.
“Why do you think I have ceased caring for you, Lo?”
“Well, you haven’t kissed me yet, have you?”
Inly dying, inly moaning, I glimpsed a reasonably wide shoulder of road
ahead, and bumped and wobbled into the weeds. Remember she is only a child,
remember she is only–
Hardly had the car come to a standstill than Lolita positively flowed
into my arms. Not daring, not daring let myself go–not even daring let
myself realize that this (sweet wetness and trembling fire) was the
beginning of the ineffable life which, ably assisted by fate, I had finally
willed into being–not daring really kiss her, I touched her hot, opening
lips with the utmost piety, tiny sips, nothing salacious; but she, with an
impatient wriggle, pressed her mouth to mine so hard that I felt her big
front teeth and shared in the peppermint taste of her saliva. I knew, of
course, it was but an innocent game on her part, a bit of backfisch foolery
in imitation of some simulacrum of fake romance, and since (as the
psychotherapist, as well as the rapist, will tell you) the limits and rules
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of such girlish games are fluid, or at least too childishly subtle for the
senior partner to grasp–I was dreadfully afraid I might go too far and
cause her to start back in revulsion and terror. And, as above all I was
agonizingly anxious to smuggle her into the hermetic seclusion of The
Enchanted Hunters, and we had still eighty miles to go, blessed intuition
broke our embrace–a split second before a highway patrol car drew up
alongside.
Florid and beetle-browed, its driver stared at me:
“Happen to see a blue sedan, same make as yours, pass you before the
junction?”
“Why, no.”
“We didn’t,” said Lo, eagerly leaning across me, her innocent hand on
my legs, “but are you sure it was blue, because–”
The cop (what shadow of us was he after?) gave the little colleen his
best smile and went into a U-turn.
We drove on.
“The fruithead!” remarked Lo. “He should have nabbed you.”
“Why me for heaven’s sake?”
“Well, the speed in this bum state is fifty, and–No, don’t slow down,
you, dull bulb. He’s gone now.”
“We have still quite a stretch,” I said, “and I want to get there
before dark. So be a good girl.”
“Bad, bad girl,” said Lo comfortably. “Juvenile delickwent, but frank
and fetching. That light was red. I’ve never seen such driving.”
We rolled silently through a silent townlet.
“Say, wouldn’t Mother be absolutely mad if she found out we were
lovers?”
“Good Lord, Lo, let us not talk that way.”
“But we are lovers, aren’t we?”
“Not that I know of. I think we are going to have some more rain. Don’t
you want to tell me of those little pranks of yours in camp?”
“You talk like a book, Dad.”
“What have you been up to? I insist you tell me.”
“Are you easily shocked?”
“No. Go on.”
“Let us turn into a secluded lane and I’ll tell you.”
“Lo, I must seriously ask you not to play the fool. Well?”
“Well–I joined in all the activities that were offered.”
“Ensuite?”
“Ansooit, I was taught to live happily and richly with others and to
develop a wholesome personality. Be a cake, in fact.”
“Yes. I saw something of the sort in the booklet.”
“We loved the sings around the fire in the big stone fireplace or under
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the darned stars, where every girl merged her own spirit of happiness with
the voice of the group.”
“Your memory is excellent, Lo, but I must trouble you to leave out the
swear words. Anything else?”
“The Girl Scout’s motto,” said Lo rhapsodically, “is also mine. I fill
my life with worthwhile deeds such as–well, never mind what. My duty is–to
be useful. I am a friend to male animals. I obey orders. I am cheerful. That
was another police car. I am thrifty and I am absolutely filthy in thought,
word and deed.”
“Now I do hope that’s all, you witty child.”
“Yep. That’s all. No–wait a sec. We baked in a reflector oven. Isn’t
that terrific?”
“Well, that’s better.”
“We washed zillions of dishes. ‘Zillions’ you know is schoolmarm’s
slang for many-many-many-many. Oh yes, last but not least, as Mother
says–Now let me see–what was it? I know we made shadowgraphs. Gee, what
fun.”
“C’est bien tout?”
“C’est. Except for one little thing, something I simply can’t
tell you without blushing all over.”
“Will you tell it me later?”
“If we sit in the dark and you let me whisper, I will. Do you sleep in
your old room or in a heap with Mother?”
“Old room. Your mother may have to undergo a very serious operation,
Lo.”
“Stop at that candy bar, will you,” said Lo.
Sitting on a high stool, a band of sunlight crossing her bare brown
forearm, Lolita was served an elaborate ice-cream concoction topped with
synthetic syrup. It was erected and brought her by a pimply brute of a boy
in a greasy bow-tie who eyed my fragile child in her thin cotton frock with
carnal deliberation. My impatience to reach Briceland and The Enchanted
Hunters was becoming more than I could endure. Fortunately she dispatched
the stuff with her usual alacrity.
“How much cash do you have?” I asked.
“Not a cent,” she said sadly, lifting her eyebrows, showing me the
empty inside of her money purse.
“This is a matter that will be mended in due time,” I rejoined archly.
“Are you coming?”
“Say, I wonder if they have a washroom.”
“you are not going there,” I said Firmly. “It is sure to be a vile
place. Do come on.”
She was on the whole an obedient little girl and I kissed her in the
neck when we got back into the car.
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“Don’t do that,” she said looking at me with unfeigned surprise.
“Don’t drool on me. You dirty man.”
She rubbed the spot against her raised shoulder.
“Sorry,” I murmured. “I’m rather fond of you, that’s all.”
We drove under a gloomy sky, up a winding road, then down again.
“Well, I’m also sort of fond of you,” said Lolita in a delayed soft
voice, with a sort of sigh, and sort of settled closer to me.
(Oh, my Lolita, we shall never get there!)
Dusk was beginning to saturate pretty little Briceland, its phony
colonial architecture, curiosity sops and imported shade trees, when we
drove through the weakly lighted streets in search of the Enchanted Hunters.
The air, despite a steady drizzle beading it, was warm and green, and a
queue of people, mainly children and old men, had already formed before the
box office of a movie house, dripping with jewel-fires.
“Oh, I want to see that picture. Let’s go right after dinner. Oh,
let’s!”
“We might,” chanted Humbert–knowing perfectly well, the sly tumescent
devil, that by nine, when his show began, she would be dead in his
arms.
“Easy!” cried Lo, lurching forward, as an accursed truck in front of
us, its backside carbuncles pulsating, stopped at a crossing.
If we did not get to the hotel soon, immediately, miraculously, in the
very next block, I felt I would lose all control over the Haze jalopy with
its ineffectual wipers and whimsical brakes; but the passers-by I applied to
for directions were either strangers themselves or asked with a frown
“Enchanted what?” as if I were a madman; or else they went into such
complicated explanations, with geometrical gestures, geographical
generalities and strictly local clues (. . . then bear south after you hit
the court-house. . .) that I could not help losing my way in the maze of
their well-meaning gibberish. Lo, whose lovely prismatic entrails had
already digested the sweetmeat, was looking forward to a big meal and had
begun to fidget. As to me, although I had long become used to a kind of
secondary fate (McFate’s inept secretary, so to speak) pettily interfering
with the boss’s generous magnificent plan–to grind and grope through the
avenues of Briceland was perhaps the most exasperating ordeal I had yet
faced. In later months I could laugh at my inexperience when recalling the
obstinate boyish way in which I had concentrated upon that particular inn
with its fancy name; for all along our route countless motor courts
proclaimed their vacancy in neon lights, ready to accommodate salesmen,
escaped convicts, impotents, family groups, as well as the most corrupt and
vigorous couples. Ah, gentle drivers gliding through summer’s black nights,
what frolics, what twists of lust, you might see from your impeccable
highways if Kumfy Kabins were suddenly drained of their pigments and became
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as transparent as boxes of glass!
The miracle I hankered for did happen after all. A man and a girl, more
or less conjoined in a dark car under dripping trees, told us we were in the
heart of The Park, but had only to turn left at the next traffic light and
there we would be. We did not see any next traffic light–in fact, The Park
was as black as the sins it concealed–but soon after falling under the
smooth spell of a nicely graded curve, the travelers became aware of a
diamond glow through the mist, then a gleam of lakewater appeared–and there
it was, marvelously and inexorably, under spectral trees, at the top of a
graveled drive–the pale palace of The Enchanted Hunters.
A row of parked cars, like pigs at a trough, seemed at first sight to
forbid access; but then, by magic, a formidable convertible, resplendent,
rubious in the lighted rain, came into motion–was energetically backed out
by a broad-shouldered driver–and we gratefully slipped into the gap it had
left. I immediately regretted my haste for I noticed that my predecessor had
now taken advantage of a garage-like shelter nearby where there was ample
space for another car; but I was too impatient to follow his example.
“Wow! Looks swank,” remarked my vulgar darling squinting at the stucco
as she crept out into the audible drizzle and with a childish hand tweaked
loose the frock-fold that had struck in the peach-cleft–to quote Robert
Browning. Under the arclights enlarged replicas of chestnut leaves plunged
and played on white pillars. I unlocked the trunk compartment. A hunchbacked
and hoary Negro in a uniform of sorts took our bags and wheeled them slowly
into the lobby. It was full of old ladies and clergy men. Lolita sank down
on her haunches to caress a pale-faced, blue-freckled, black-eared cocker
spaniel swooning on the floral carpet under her hand–as who would not, my
heart–while I cleared my throat through the throng to the desk. There a
bald porcine old man–everybody was old in that old hotel–examined my
features with a polite smile, then leisurely produced my (garbled) telegram,
wrestled with some dark doubts, turned his head to look at the clock, and
finally said he was very sorry, he had held the room with the twin beds till
half past six, and now it was gone. A religious convention, he said, had
clashed with a flower show in Briceland, and–“The name,” I said coldly, “is
not Humberg and not Humbug, but Herbert, I mean Humbert, and any room will
do, just put in a cot for my little daughter. She is ten and very tired.”
The pink old fellow peered good-naturedly at Lo–still squatting,
listening in profile, lips parted, to what the dog’s mistress, an ancient
lady swathed in violet veils, was telling her from the depths of a cretonne
easy chair.
Whatever doubts the obscene fellow had, they were dispelled by that
blossom-like vision. He said, he might still have a room, had one, in
fact–with a double bed. As to the cot–
“Mr. Potts, do we have any cots left?” Potts, also pink and bald, with
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white hairs growing out of his ears and other holes, would see what could be
done. He came and spoke while I unscrewed my fountain pen. Impatient
Humbert!
“Our double beds are really triple,” Potts cozily said tucking me and
my kid in. “One crowded night we had three ladies and a child like yours
sleep together. I believe one of the ladies was a disguised man [my
static]. However–would there be a spare cot in 49, Mr. Swine?
“I think it went to the Swoons,” said Swine, the initial old clown.
“We’ll manage somehow,” I said. “My wife may join us later–but even
then, I suppose, we’ll manage.”
The two pink pigs were now among my best friends. In the slow clear
hand of crime I wrote: Dr. Edgar H. Humbert and daughter, 342 Lawn Street,
Ramsdale. A key (342!) was half-shown to me (magician showing object he is
about to palm)–and handed over to Uncle tom. Lo, leaving the dog as she
would leave me some day, rose from her haunches; a raindrop fell on
Charlotte’s grave; a handsome young Negress slipped open the elevator door,
and the doomed child went in followed by her throat-clearing father and
crayfish Tom with the bags.
Parody of a hotel corridor. Parody of silence and death.
“Say, it’s our house number,” said cheerful Lo.
There was a double bed, a mirror, a double bed in the mirror, a closet
door with mirror, a bathroom door ditto, a blue-dark window, a reflected bed
there, the same in the closet mirror, two chairs, a glass-topped table, two
bedtables, a double bed: a big panel bed, to be exact, with a Tuscan rose
chenille spread, and two frilled, pink-shaded nightlamps, left and right.
I was tempted to place a five-dollar bill in that sepia palm, but
thought the largesse might be misconstrued, so I placed a quarter. Added
another. He withdrew. Click. Enfin seuls.
“Are we going to sleep in one room?” said Lo, her features
working in that dynamic way they did–not cross or disgusted (though plain
on the brink of it) but just dynamic–when she wanted to load a question
with violent significance.
“I’ve asked them to put in a cot. Which I’ll use if you like.”
“You are crazy,” said Lo.
“Why, my darling?”
“Because, my dahrling, when dahrling Mother finds out she’ll divorce
you and strangle me.”
Just dynamic. Not really taking the matter too seriously.
“Now look here,” I said, sitting down, while she stood, a few feet away
from me, and stared at herself contentedly, not unpleasantly surprised at
her own appearance, filling with her own rosy sunshine the surprised and
pleased closet-door mirror.
“Look here, Lo. Let’s settle this once for all. For all practical
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purposes I am your father. I have a feeling of great tenderness for you. In
your mother’s absence I am responsible for your welfare. We are not rich,
and while we travel, we shall be obliged–we shall be thrown a good deal
together. Two people sharing one room, inevitably enter into a kind–how
shall I say–a kind–”
“The word is incest,” said Lo–and walked into the closet, walked out
again with a young golden giggle, opened the adjoining door, and after
carefully peering inside with her strange smoky eyes lest she make another
mistake, retired to the bathroom.
I opened the window, tore off my sweat-drenched shirt, changed, checked
the pill vial in my coat pocket, unlocked the–
She drifted out. I tried to embrace her: casually, a bit of controlled
tenderness before dinner.
She said: “Look, let’s cut out the kissing game and get something to
eat.”
It was then that I sprang my surprise.
Oh, what a dreamy pet! She walked up to the open suitcase as if
stalking it from afar, at a kind of slow-motion walk, peering at that
distant treasure box on the luggage support. (Was there something wrong, I
wondered, with those great gray eyes of hers, or were we both plunged in the
same enchanted mist?) She stepped up to it, lifting her rather high-heeled
feet rather high, and bending her beautiful boy-knees while she walked
through dilating space with the lentor of one walking under water or in a
flight dream. Then she raised by the armlets a copper-colored, charming and
quite expensive vest, very slowly stretching it between her silent hands as
if she were a bemused bird-hunter holding his breath over the incredible
bird he spreads out by the tips of its flaming wings. Then (while I stood
waiting for her) she pulled out the slow snake of a brilliant belt and tried
it on.
Then she crept into my waiting arms, radiant, relaxed, caressing me
with her tender, mysterious, impure, indifferent, twilight eyes–for all the
world, like the cheapest of cheap cuties. For that is what nymphets
imitate–while we moan and die.
“What’s the katter with misses?” I muttered (word-control gone) into
her hair.
“If you must know,” she said, “you do it the wrong way.”
“Show, wight ray.”
“All in good time,” responded the spoonerette.
Seva ascendes, pulsata, brulans, kizelans, dementissima. Elevator
clatterans, pausa, clatterans, populus in corridoro. Hanc nisi mors mihi
adimet nemo! Juncea puellula, jo pensavo fondissime, nobserva nihil
quidquam; but, of course, in another moment I might have committed some
dreadful blunder; fortunately, she returned to the treasure box.
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From the bathroom, where it took me quite a time to shift back into
normal gear for a humdrum purpose, I heard, standing, drumming, retaining my
breath, my Lolita’s “oo’s” and “gee’s” of girlish delight.
She had used the soap only because it was sample soap.
“Well, come on, my dear, if you are as hungry as I am.”
And so to the elevator, daughter swinging her old white purse, father
walking in front (nota bene: never behind, she is not a lady). As we stood
(now side by side) waiting to be taken down, she threw back her head, yawned
without restraint and shook her curls.
“When did they make you get up at that camp?”
“Half-past–” she stifled another yawn–“six”–yawn in full with a
shiver of all her frame. “Half-past,” she repeated, her throat filling up
again.
The dining room met us with a smell of fried fat and a faded smile. It
was a spacious and pretentious place with maudlin murals depicting enchanted
hunters in various postures and states of enchantment amid a medley of
pallid animals, dryads and trees. A few scattered old ladies, two clergymen,
and a man in a sports coat were finishing their meals in silence. The dining
room closed at nine, and the green-clad, poker-faced serving girls were,
happily, in a desperate hurry to get rid of us.
“Does not he look exactly, but exactly, like Quilty?” said Lo in a soft
voice, her sharp brown elbow not pointing, but visibly burning to point, at
the lone diner in the loud checks, in the far corner of the room.
“Like our fat Ramsdale dentist?”
Lo arrested the mouthful of water she had just taken, and put down her
dancing glass.
“Course not,” she said with a splutter of mirth. “I meant the writer
fellow in the Dromes ad.”
Oh, Fame! Oh, Femina!
When the dessert was plunked down–a huge wedge of cherry pie for the
young lady and vanilla ice cream her protector, most of which she
expeditiously added to her pie–I produced a small vial containing Papa’s
Purple Pills. As I look back at those seasick murals, at that strange and
monstrous moment, I can only explain my behavior then by the mechanism of
that dream vacuum wherein revolves a deranged mind; but at the time, it all
seemed quite simple and inevitable to me. I glanced around, satisfied myself
that the last diner had left, removed the stopped, and with the utmost
deliberation tipped the philter into my palm. I had carefully rehearsed
before a mirror the gesture of clapping my empty hand to my open mouth and
swallowing a (fictitious) pill. As I expected, she pounced upon the vial
with its plump, beautifully colored capsules loaded with Beauty’s Sleep.
“Blue!” she exclaimed. “Violet blue. What are they made of?”
“Summer skies,” I said, “and plums and figs, and the grapeblood of
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emperors.”
“No, seriously–please.”
“Oh, just purpills. Vitamin X. Makes one strong as an ox or an ax. Want
to try one?”
Lolita stretched out her hand, nodding vigorously.
I had hoped the drug would work fast. It certainly did. She had had a
long long day, she had gone rowing in the morning with Barbara whose sister
was Waterfront Director, as the adorable accessible nymphet now started to
tell me in between suppressed palate-humping yawns, growing in volume–oh,
how fast the magic potion worked!–and had been active in other ways too.
The movie that had vaguely loomed in her mind was, of course, by the time we
watertreaded out of the dining room, forgotten. As we stood in the elevator,
she leaned against me, faintly smiling–wouldn’t you like me to tell
you–half closing her dark-lidded eyes. “Sleepy, huh?” said Uncle Tom who
was bringing up the quiet Franco-Irish gentleman and his daughter as well as
two withered women, experts in roses. They looked with sympathy at my frail,
tanned, tottering, dazed rosedarling. I had almost to carry her into our
room. There, she sat down on the edge of the bed, swaying a little, speaking
in dove-dull, long-drawn tones.
“If I tell you–if I tell you, will you promise [sleepy, so
sleepy–head lolling, eyes going out], promise you won’t make complaints?”
“Later, Lo. Now go to bed. I’ll leave you here, and you go to bed. Give
you ten minutes.”
“Oh, I’ve been such a disgusting girl,” she went on, shaking her hair,
removing with slow fingers a velvet hair ribbon. “Lemme tell you–”
“Tomorrow, Lo. Go to bed, go to bed–for goodness sake, to bed.”
I pocketed the key and walked downstairs.
28
Gentlewomen of the jury! Bear with me! Allow me to take just a tiny bit
of your precious time. So this was le grand moment. I had left my
Lolita still sitting on the edge of the abysmal bed, drowsily raising her
foot, fumbling at the shoelaces and showing as she did so the nether side of
her thigh up to the crotch of her panties–she had always been singularly
absentminded, or shameless, or both, in matters of legshow. This, then, was
the hermetic vision of her which I had locked in–after satisfying myself
that the door carried no inside bolt. The key, with its numbered dangler of
carved wood, became forthwith the weighty sesame to a rapturous and
formidable future. It was mine, it was part of my hot hairy fist. In a few
minutes–say, twenty, say half-an-hour, sicher ist sicher as my uncle
Gustave used to say–I would let myself into that “342” and find my nymphet,
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my beauty and bride, imprisoned in her crystal sleep. Jurors! If my
happiness could have talked, it would have filled that genteel hotel with a
deafening roar. And my only regret today is that I did not quietly deposit
key “342” at the office, and leave the town, the country, the continent, the
hemisphere,–indeed, the globe–that very same night.
Let me explain. I was not unduly disturbed by her self-accusatory
innuendoes. I was still firmly resolved to pursue my policy of sparing her
purity by operating only in the stealth of night, only upon a completely
anesthetized little nude. Restraint and reverence were still my motto-even
if that “purity” (incidentally, thoroughly debunked by modern science) had
been slightly damaged through some juvenile erotic experience, no doubt
homosexual, at that accursed camp of hers. Of course, in my old-fashioned,
old-world way, I, Jean-Jacques Humbert, had taken for granted, when I first
met her, that she was as unravished as the stereotypical notion of “normal
child” had been since the lamented end of the Ancient World B.C. and its
fascinating practices. We are not surrounded in our enlightened era by little
slave flowers that can be casually plucked between business and bath as they
used to be in the days of the Romans; and we do not, as dignified Orientals
did in still more luxurious times, use tiny entertainers fore and aft
between the mutton and the rose sherbet. The whole point is that the old
link between the adult world and the child world has been completely severed
nowadays by new customs and new laws. Despite my having dabbled in
psychiatry and social work, I really knew very little about children. After
all, Lolita was only twelve, and no matter what concessions I made to time
and place–even bearing in mind the crude behavior of American
schoolchildren–I still was under the impression that whatever went on among
those brash brats, went on at a later age, and in a different environment.
Therefore (to retrieve the thread of this explanation) the moralist in me
by-passed the issue by clinging to conventional notions of what
twelve-year-old girls should be. The child therapist in me (a fake, as most
of them are–but no matter) regurgitated neo-Freudian hash and conjured up a
dreaming and exaggerating Dolly in the “latency” period of girlhood.
Finally, the sensualist in me (a great and insane monster) had no objection
to some depravity in his prey. But somewhere behind the raging bliss,
bewildered shadows conferred–and not to have heeded them, this is what I
regret! Human beings, attend! I should have understood that Lolita had
already proved to be something quite different from innocent Annabel,
and that the nymphean evil breathing through every pore of the fey child
that I had prepared for my secret delectation, would make the secrecy
impossible, and the delectation lethal. I should have known (by the signs
made to me by something in Lolita–the real child Lolita or some haggard
angel behind her back) that nothing but pain and horror would result from
the expected rapture. Oh, winged gentlemen of the jury!
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And she was mine, she was mine, the key was in my fist, my fist was in
my pocket, she was mine. In the course of evocations and schemes to which I
had dedicated so many insomnias, I had gradually eliminated all the
superfluous blur, and by stacking level upon level of translucent vision,
had evolved a final picture. Naked, except for one sock and her charm
bracelet, spread-eagled on the bed where my philter had felled her–so I
foreglimpsed her; a velvet hair ribbon was still clutched in her hand; her
honey-brown body, with the white negative image of a rudimentary swimsuit
patterned against her tan, presented to me its pale breastbuds; in the rosy
lamplight, a little pubic floss glistened on its plump hillock. The cold key
with its warm wooden addendum was in my pocket.
I wandered through various public rooms, glory below, gloom above: for
the look of lust always is gloomy; lust is never quite sure–even when the
velvety victim is locked up in one’s dungeon–that some rival devil or
influential god may still not abolish one’s prepared triumph. In common
parlance, I needed a drink; but there was no barroom in that venerable place
full of perspiring philistines and period objects.
I drifted to the Men’s Room. There, a person in the clerical black–a
“hearty party” comme on dit–checking with the assistance of Vienna,
if it was still there, inquired of me how I had liked Dr. Boyd’s talk, and
looked puzzled when I (King Sigmund the Second) said Boyd was quite a boy.
Upon which, I neatly chucked the tissue paper I had been wiping my sensitive
finger tips with into the receptacle provided for it, and sallied lobbyward.
Comfortably resting my elbows on the counter, I asked Mr. Potts was he quite
sure my wife had not telephoned, and what about that cot? He answered she
had not (she was dead, of course) and the cot would be installed tomorrow if
we decided to stay on. From a big crowded place called The Hunters’ Hall
came a sound of many voices discussing horticulture or eternity. Another
room, called The Raspberry Room, all bathed in light, with bright little
tables and a large one with “refreshments,” was still empty except for a
hostess (that type of worn woman with a glassy smile and Charlotte’s manner
of speaking); she floated up to me to ask if I was Mr. Braddock, because if
so, Miss Beard had been looking for me. “What a name for a woman,” I said
and strolled away.
In and out of my heart flowed my rainbow blood. I would give her till
half-past-nine. Going back to the lobby, I found there a change: a number of
people in floral dresses or black cloth had formed little groups here and
there, and some elfish chance offered me the sight of a delightful child of
Lolita’s age, in Lolita’s type of frock, but pure white, and there was a
white ribbon in her black hair. She was not pretty, but she was a nymphet,
and her ivory pale legs and lily neck formed for one memorable moment a most
pleasurable antiphony (in terms of spinal music) to my desire for Lolita,
brown and pink, flushed and fouled. The pale child noticed my gaze (which
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was really quite casual and debonair), and being ridiculously
self-conscious, lost countenance completely, rolling her eyes and putting
the back of her hand to her cheek, and pulling at the hem of her skirt, and
finally turning her thin mobile shoulder blades to me in specious chat with
her cow-like mother.
I left the loud lobby and stood outside, on the white steps, looking at
the hundreds of powdered bugs wheeling around the lamps in the soggy black
night, full of ripple and stir. All I would do–all I would dare do–would
amount to such a trifle . . . Suddenly I was aware that in the darkness next
to me there was somebody sitting in a chair on the pillared porch. I could
not really see him but what gave him away was the rasp of a screwing off,
then a discreet gurgle, then the final note of a placid screwing on. I was
about to move away when his voice addressed me:
“Where the devil did you get her?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I said: the weather is getting better.”
“Seems so.”
“Who’s the lassie?”
“My daughter.”
“You lie–she’s not.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I said: July was hot. Where’s her mother?”
“Dead.”
“I see. Sorry. By the way, why don’t you two lunch with me tomorrow.
That dreadful crowd will be gone by then.”
“We’ll be gone too. Good night.”
“Sorry. I’m pretty drunk. Good night. That child of yours needs a lot
of sleep. Sleep is a rose, as the Persians say. Smoke?”
“Not now.”
He struck a light, but because he was drunk, or because the wind was,
the flame illumined not him but another person, a very old man, one of those
permanent guests of old hotels–and his white rocker. Nobody said anything
and the darkness returned to its initial place. Then I heard the old-timer
cough and deliver himself of some sepulchral mucus.
I left the porch. At least half an hour in all had elapsed. I ought to
have asked for a sip. The strain was beginning to tell. If a violin string
can ache, then I was that string. But it would have been unseemly to display
any hurry. As I made my way through a constellation of fixed people in one
corner of the lobby, there came a blinding flash–and beaming Dr. Braddock,
two orchid-ornamentalized matrons, the small girl in white, and presumably
the bared teeth of Humbert Humbert sidling between the bridelike lassie and
the enchanted cleric, were immortalized–insofar as the texture and print of
small-town newspapers can be deemed immortal. A twittering group had
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gathered near the elevator. I again chose the stairs. 342 was near the fire
escape. One could still–but the key was already in the lock, and then I was
in the room.
29
The door of the lighted bathroom stood ajar; in addition to that, a
skeleton glow came though the Venetian blind from the outside arclights;
these intercrossed rays penetrated the darkness of the bedroom and revealed
the following situation.
Clothed in one of her old nightgowns, my Lolita lay on her side with
her back to me, in the middle of the bed. Her lightly veiled body and bare
limbs formed a Z. She had put both pillows under her dark tousled head; a
band of pale light crossed her top vertebrae.
I seemed to have shed my clothes and slipped into pajamas with the kind
of fantastic instantaneousness which is implied when in a cinematographic
scene the process of changing is cut; and I had already placed my knee on
the edge of the bed when Lolita turned her head and stared at me though the
striped shadows.
Now this was something the intruder had not expected. The whole
pill-spiel (a rather sordid affair, entre nous soit dit) had had for
object a fastness of sleep that a whole regiment would not have disturbed,
and here she was staring at me, and thickly calling me “Barbara.” Barbara,
wearing my pajamas which were much too tight for her, remained poised
motionless over the little sleep-talker. Softly, with a hopeless sigh, Dolly
turned away, resuming her initial position. For at least two minutes I
waited and strained on the brink, like that tailor with his homemade
parachute forty years ago when about to jump from the Eiffel Tower. Her
faint breathing had the rhythm of sleep. Finally I heaved myself onto my
narrow margin of bed, stealthily pulled at the odds and ends of sheets piled
up to the south of my stone-cold heels–and Lolita lifted her head and gaped
at me.
As I learned later from a helpful pharmaceutist, the purple pill did
not even belong to the big and noble family of barbiturates, and though it
might have induced sleep in a neurotic who believed it to be a potent drug,
it was too mild a sedative to affect for any length of time a wary, albeit
weary, nymphet. Whether the Ramsdale doctor was a charlatan or a shrewd old
rogue, does not, and did not, really matter. What mattered, was that I had
been deceived. When Lolita opened her eyes again, I realized that whether or
not the drug might work later in the night, the security I had relied upon
was a sham one. Slowly her head turned away and dropped onto her unfair
amount of pillow. I lay quite still on my brink, peering at her rumpled
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hair, at the glimmer of nymphet flesh, where half a haunch and half a
shoulder dimly showed, and trying to gauge the depth of her sleep by the
rate of her respiration. Some time passed, nothing changed, and I decided I
might risk getting a little closer to that lovely and maddening glimmer; but
hardly had I moved into its warm purlieus than her breathing was suspended,
and I had the odious feeling that little Dolores was wide awake and would
explode in screams if I touched her with any part of my wretchedness.
Please, reader: no matter your exasperation with the tenderhearted, morbidly
sensitive, infinitely circumspect hero of my book, do not skip these
essential pages! Imagine me; I shall not exist if you do not imagine me; try
to discern the doe in me, trembling in the forest of my own iniquity; let’s
even smile a little. After all, there is no harm in smiling. For instance (I
almost wrote “frinstance”), I had no place to rest my head, and a fit of
heartburn (they call those fries “French,” grand Dieu!) was added to
my discomfort.
She was again fast asleep, my nymphet, but still I did not dare to
launch upon my enchanted voyage. La Petite Dormeuse ou l’Amant
Ridicule. Tomorrow I would stuff her with those earlier pills that had
so thoroughly numbed her mummy. In the glove compartment–or in the
Gladstone bag? Should I wait a solid hour and then creep up again? The
science of nympholepsy is a precise science. Actual contact would do it in
one second flat. An interspace of a millimeter would do it in ten. Let us
wait.
There is nothing louder than an American hotel; and, mind you, this was
supposed to be a quiet, cozy, old-fashioned, homey place–“gracious living”
and all that stuff. The clatter of the elevator’s gate–some twenty yards
northeast of my head but as clearly perceived as if it were inside my left
temple–alternated with the banging and booming of the machine’s various
evolutions and lasted well beyond midnight. Every now and then, immediately
east of my left ear (always assuming I lay on my back, not daring to direct
my viler side toward the nebulous haunch of my bed-mate), the corridor would
brim with cheerful, resonant and inept exclamations ending in a volley of
good-nights. When that stopped, a toilet immediately north of my
cerebellum took over. It was a manly, energetic, deep-throated toilet, and
it was used many times. Its gurgle and gush and long afterflow shook the
wall behind me. Then someone in a southern direction was extravagantly sick,
almost coughing out his life with his liquor, and his toilet descended like
a veritable Niagara, immediately beyond our bathroom. And when finally all
the waterfalls had stopped, and the enchanted hunters were sound asleep, the
avenue under the window of my insomnia, to the west of my wake–a staid,
eminently residential, dignified alley of huge trees–degenerated into the
despicable haunt of gigantic trucks roaring through the wet and windy night.
And less than six inches from me and my burning life, was nebulous
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Lolita! After a long stirless vigil, my tentacles moved towards her again,
and this time the creak of the mattress did not awake her. I managed to
bring my ravenous bulk so close to her that I felt the aura of her bare
shoulder like a warm breath upon my cheek. And then, she sat up, gasped,
muttered with insane rapidity something about boats, tugged at the sheets
and lapsed back into her rich, dark, young unconsciousness. As she tossed,
within that abundant flow of sleep, recently auburn, at present lunar, her
arm struck me across the face. For a second I held her. She freed herself
from the shadow of my embrace–doing this not consciously, not violently,
not with any personal distaste, but with the neutral plaintive murmur of a
child demanding its natural rest. And again the situation remained the same:
Lolita with her curved spine to Humbert, Humbert resting his head on his
hand and burning with desire and dyspepsia.
The latter necessitated a trip to the bathroom for a draft of water
which is the best medicine I know in my case, except perhaps milk with
radishes; and when I re-entered the strange pale-striped fastness where
Lolita’s old and new clothes reclined in various attitudes of enchantment on
pieces of furniture that seemed vaguely afloat, my impossible daughter sat
up and in clear tones demanded a drink, too. She took the resilient and cold
paper cup in her shadowy hand and gulped down its contents gratefully, her
long eyelashes pointing cupward, and then, with an infantile gesture that
carried more charm than any carnal caress, little Lolita wiped her lips
against my shoulder. She fell back on her pillow (I had subtracted mine
while she drank) and was instantly asleep again.
I had not dared offer her a second helping of the drug, and had not
abandoned hope that the first might still consolidate her sleep. I started
to move toward her, ready for any disappointment, knowing I had better wait
but incapable of waiting. My pillow smelled of her hair. I moved toward my
glimmering darling, stopping or retreating every time I thought she stirred
or was about to stir. A breeze from wonderland had begun to affect my
thoughts, and now they seemed couched in italics, as if the surface
reflecting them were wrinkled by the phantasm of that breeze. Time and again
my consciousness folded the wrong way, my shuffling body entered the sphere
of sleep, shuffled out again, and once or twice I caught myself drifting
into a melancholy snore. Mists of tenderness enfolded mountains of longing.
Now and then it seemed to me that the enchanted prey was about to meet
halfway the enchanted hunter, that her haunch was working its way toward me
under the soft sand of a remote and fabulous beach; and then her dimpled
dimness would stir, and I would know she was farther away from me than ever.
If I dwell at some length on the tremors and groupings of that distant
night, it is because I insist upon proving that I am not, and never was, and
never could have been, a brutal scoundrel. The gentle and dreamy regions
though which I crept were the patrimonies of poets–not crime’s
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prowling ground. Had I reached my goal, my ecstasy would have been all
softness, a case of internal combustion of which she would hardly have felt
the heat, even if she were wide awake. But I still hoped she might gradually
be engulfed in a completeness of stupor that would allow me to taste more
than a glimmer of her. And so, in between tentative approximations, with a
confusion of perception metamorphosing her into eyespots of moonlight or a
fluffy flowering bush, I would dream I regained consciousness, dream I lay
in wait.
In the first antemeridian hours there was a lull in the restless hotel
night. Then around four the corridor toilet cascaded and its door banged. A
little after five a reverberating monologue began to arrive, in several
installments, from some courtyard or parking place. It was not really a
monologue, since the speaker stopped every few seconds to listen
(presumably) to another fellow, but that other voice did not reach me, and
so no real meaning could be derived from the part heard. Its matter-of-fact
intonations, however, helped to bring in the dawn, and the room was already
suffused with lilac gray, when several industrious toilets went to work, one
after the other, and the clattering and whining elevator began to rise and
take down early risers and downers, and for some minutes I miserably dozed,
and Charlotte was a mermaid in a greenish tank, and somewhere in the passage
Dr. Boyd said “Good morning to you” in a fruity voice, and birds were busy
in the trees, and then Lolita yawned.
Frigid gentlewomen of the jury! I had thought that months, perhaps
years, would elapse before I dared to reveal myself to Dolores Haze; but by
six she was wide awake, and by six fifteen we were technically lovers. I am
going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me.
Upon hearing her first morning yawn, I feigned handsome profiled sleep.
I just did not know what to do. Would she be shocked at finding me by her
side, and not in some spare bed? Would she collect her clothes and lock
herself up in the bathroom? Would she demand to be taken at once to
Ramsdale–to her mother’s bedside–back to camp? But my Lo was a sportive
lassie. I felt her eyes on me, and when she uttered at last that beloved
chortling note of hers, I knew her eyes had been laughing. She rolled over
to my side, and her warm brown hair came against my collarbone. I gave a
mediocre imitation of waking up. We lay quietly. I gently caressed her hair,
and we gently kissed. Her kiss, to my delirious embarrassment, had some
rather comical refinements of flutter and probe which made me conclude she
had been coached at an early age by a little Lesbian. No Charlie boy could
have taught her that. As if to see whether I had my fill and learned
the lesson, she drew away and surveyed me. Her cheekbones were flushed, her
full underlip glistened, my dissolution was near. All at once, with a burst
of rough glee (the sign of the nymphet!), she put her mouth to my ear–but
for quite a while my mind could not separate into words the hot thunder of
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her whisper, and she laughed, and brushed the hair off her face, and tried
again, and gradually the odd sense of living in a brand new, mad new dream
world, where everything was permissible, came over me as I realized what she
was suggesting. I answered I did not know what game she and Charlie had
played. “You mean you have never–?”–her features twisted into a stare of
disgusted incredulity. “You have never–” she started again. I took time out
by nuzzling her a little. “Lay off, will you,” she said with a twangy whine,
hastily removing her brown shoulder from my lips. (It was very curious the
way she considered–and kept doing so for a long time–all caresses except
kisses on the mouth or the stark act of love either “romantic slosh” or
“abnormal”.)
“You mean,” she persisted, now kneeling above me, “you never did it
when you were a kid?”
“Never,” I answered quite truthfully.
“Okay,” said Lolita, “here is where we start.”
However, I shall not bore my learned readers with a detailed account of
Lolita’s presumption. Suffice it to say that not a trace of modesty did I
perceive in this beautiful hardly formed young girl whom modern
co-education, juvenile mores, the campfire racket and so forth had utterly
and hopelessly depraved. She saw the stark act merely as part of a
youngster’s furtive world, unknown to adults. What adults did for purposes
of procreation was no business of hers. My life was handled by little Lo in
an energetic, matter-of-fact manner as if it were an insensate gadget
unconnected with me. While eager to impress me with the world of tough kids,
she was not quite prepared for certain discrepancies between a kid’s life
and mine. Pride alone prevented her from giving up; for, in my strange
predicament, I feigned supreme stupidity and had her have her way–at least
while I could still bear it. But really these are irrelevant matters; I am
not concerned with so-called “sex” at all. Anybody can imagine those
elements of animality. A greater endeavor lures me on: to fix once for all
the perilous magic of nymphets.
30
I have to tread carefully. I have to speak in a whisper. Oh you,
veteran crime reporter, you grave old usher, you once popular policeman, now
in solitary confinement after gracing that school crossing for years, you
wretched emeritus read to by a boy! It would never do, would it, to have you
fellows fall madly in love with my Lolita! had I been a painter, had the
management of The Enchanted Hunters lost its mind one summer day and
commissioned me to redecorate their dining room with murals of my own
making, this is what I might have thought up, let me list some fragments:
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There would have been a lake. There would have been an arbor in
flame-flower. There would have been nature studies–a tiger pursuing a bird
of paradise, a choking snake sheathing whole the flayed trunk of a shoat.
There would have been a sultan, his face expressing great agony (belied, as
it were, by his molding caress), helping a callypygean slave child to climb
a column of onyx. There would have been those luminous globules of gonadal
glow that travel up the opalescent sides of juke boxes. There would have
been all kinds of camp activities on the part of the intermediate group,
Canoeing, Coranting, Combing Curls in the lakeside sun. There would have
been poplars, apples, a suburban Sunday. There would have been a fire opal
dissolving within a ripple-ringed pool, a last throb, a last dab of color,
stinging red, smearing pink, a sigh, a wincing child.
31
I am trying to describe these things not to relive them in my present
boundless misery, but to sort out the portion of hell and the portion of
heaven in that strange, awful, maddening world–nymphet love. The beastly
and beautiful merged at one point, and it is that borderline I would like to
fix, and I feel I fail to do so utterly. Why?
The stipulation of the Roman law, according to which a girl may marry
at twelve, was adopted by the Church, and is still preserved, rather
tacitly, in some of the United States. And fifteen is lawful everywhere.
There is nothing wrong, say both hemispheres, when a brute of forty, blessed
by the local priest and bloated with drink, sheds his sweat-drenched finery
and thrusts himself up to the hilt into his youthful bride. “In such
stimulating temperate climates [says an old magazine in this prison library]
as St. Louis, Chicago and Cincinnati, girls mature about the end of their
twelfth year.” Dolores Haze was born less than three hundred miles from
stimulating Cincinnati. I have but followed nature. I am nature’s faithful
hound. Why then this horror that I cannot shake off? Did I deprive her of
her flower? Sensitive gentlewomen of the jury, I was not even her first
lover.
32
She told me the way she had been debauched. We ate flavorless mealy
bananas, bruised peaches and very palatable potato chips, and die
Kleine told me everything. Her voluble but disjointed account was
accompanied by many a droll moue. As I think I have already observed,
I especially remember one wry face on an “ugh!” basis: jelly-mouth distended
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sideways and eyes rolled up in a routine blend of comic disgust, resignation
and tolerance for young frailty.
Her astounding tale started with an introductory mention of her
tent-mate of the previous summer, at another camp, a “very select” one as
she put it. That tent-mate (“quite a derelict character,” “half-crazy,” but
a “swell kid”) instructed her in various manipulations. At first, loyal Lo
refused to tell me her name.
“Was it Grace Angel?” I asked.
She shook her head. No, it wasn’t it was the daughter of a big shot.
He–
“Was it perhaps Rose Carmine?”
“No, of course not. Her father–”
“Was it, then, Agnes Sheridan perchance?”
She swallowed and shook her head–and then did a double take.
“Say, how come you know all those kids?”
I explained.
“Well,” she said. “They are pretty bad, some of that school bunch, but
not that bad. If you have to know, her name was Elizabeth Talbot, she goes
now to a swanky private school, her father is an executive.”
I recalled with a funny pang the frequency with which poor Charlotte
used to introduce into party chat such elegant tidbits as “when my daughter
was out hiking last year with the Talbot girl.”
I wanted to know if either mother learned of those sapphic diversions?
“Gosh no,” exhaled limp Lo mimicking dread and relief, pressing a
falsely fluttering hand to her chest.
I was more interested, however, in heterosexual experience. She had
entered the sixth grade at eleven, soon after moving to Ramsdale from the
Middle West. What did she mean by “pretty bad”?
Well, the Miranda twins had shared the same bed for years, and Donald
Scott, who was the dumbest boy in the school, had done it with Hazel Smith
in his uncle’s garage, and Kenneth Knight–who was the brightest–used to
exhibit himself wherever and whenever he had a chance, and–
“Let us switch to Camp Q,” I said. And presently I got the whole story.
Barbara Burke, a sturdy blond, two years older than Lo and by far the
camp’s best swimmer, had a very special canoe which she shared with Lo
“because I was the only other girl who could make Willow Island” (some
swimming test, I imagine). Through July, every morning–mark, reader, every
blessed morning–Barbara and Lo would be helped to carry the boat to Onyx or
Eryx (two small lakes in the wood) by Charlie Holmes, the camp mistress’
son, aged thirteen–and the only human male for a couple of miles around
(excepting an old meek stone-deaf handyman, and a farmer in an old Ford who
sometimes sold the campers eggs as farmers will); every morning, oh my
reader, the three children would take a short cut through the beautiful
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innocent forest brimming with all the emblems of youth, dew, birdsongs, and
at one point, among the luxuriant undergrowth, Lo would be left as sentinel,
while Barbara and the boy copulated behind a bush.
At first, Lo had refused “to try what it was like,” but curiosity and
camaraderie prevailed, and soon she and Barbara were doing it by turns with
the silent, coarse and surly but indefatigable Charlie, who had as much sex
appeal as a raw carrot but sported a fascinating collection of
contraceptives which he used to fish out of a third nearby lake, a
considerably larger and more populous one, called Lake Climax, after the
booming young factory town of that name. Although conceding it was “sort of
fun” and “fine for the complexion,” Lolita, I am glad to say, held Charlie’s
mind and manners in the greatest contempt. Nor had her temperament been
roused by that filthy fiend. In fact, I think he had rather stunned it,
despite the “fun.”
By that time it was close to ten. With the ebb of lust, an ashen sense
of awfulness, abetted by the realistic drabness of a gray neuralgic day,
crept over me and hummed within my temples. Brown, naked, frail Lo, her
narrow white buttocks to me, her sulky face to a door mirror, stood, arms
akimbo, feet (in new slippers with pussy-fur tops) wide apart, and through a
forechanging lock tritely mugged at herself in the glass. From the corridor
came the cooing voices of colored maids at work, and presently there was a
mild attempt to open the door of our room. I had Lo go to the bathroom and
take a much-needed soap shower. The bed was a frightful mess with overtones
of potato chips. She tried on a two-piece navy wool, then a sleeveless
blouse with a swirly clathrate skirt, but the first was too tight and the
second too ample, and when I begged her to hurry up (the situation was
beginning to frighten me), Lo viciously sent those nice presents of mine
hurtling into a corner, and put on yesterday’s dress. When she was ready at
last, I gave her a lovely new purse of simulated calf (in which I had
slipped quite a few pennies and two mint-bright dimes) and told her to buy
herself a magazine in the lobby.
“I’ll be down in a minute,” I said. “And if I were you, my dear, I
would not talk to strangers.”
Except for my poor little gifts, there was not much to pack; but I was
forced to devote a dangerous amount of time (was she up to something
downstairs?) to arranging the bed in such a way as to suggest the abandoned
nest of a restless father and his tomboy daughter, instead of an
ex-convict’s saturnalia with a couple of fat old whores. Then I finished
dressing and had the hoary bellboy come up for the bags.
Everything was fine. There, in the lobby, she sat, deep in an
overstuffed blood-red armchair, deep in a lurid movie magazine. A fellow of
my age in tweeds (the genre of the place had changed overnight to a spurious
country-squire atmosphere) was staring at my Lolita over his dead cigar and
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stale newspaper. She wore her professional white socks and saddle oxfords,
and that bright print frock with the square throat; a splash of jaded
lamplight brought out the golden down on her warm brown limbs. There she
sat, her legs carelessly highcrossed, and her pale eyes skimming along the
lines with every now and then a blink. Bill’s wife had worshipped him from
afar long before they ever met: in fact, she used to secretly admire the
famous young actor as he ate sundaes in Schwab’s drugstore. Nothing could
have been more childish than her snubbed nose, freckled face or the purplish
spot on her naked neck where a fairytale vampire had feasted, or the
unconscious movement of her tongue exploring a touch of rosy rash around her
swollen lips; nothing could be more harmless than to read about Jill, an
energetic starlet who made her own clothes and was a student of serious
literature; nothing could be more innocent than the part in that glossy
brown hair with that silky sheen on the temple; nothing could be more
naive–But what sickening envy the lecherous fellow whoever he was–come to
think of it, he resembled a little my Swiss uncle Gustave, also a great
admirer of le dècouvert–would have experienced had he known that
every nerve in me was still anointed and ringed with the feel of her
body–the body of some immortal demon disguised as a female child.
Was pink pig Mr. Swoon absolutely sure my wife had not telephoned? He
was. If she did, would he tell her we had gone on to Aunt Clare’s place? He
would, indeedie. I settled the bill and roused Lo from her chair. She read
to the car. Still reading, she was driven to a so-called coffee shop a few
blocks south. Oh, she ate all right. She even laid aside her magazine to
eat, but a queer dullness had replaced her usual cheerfulness. I knew little
Lo could be very nasty, so I braced myself and grinned, and waited for a
squall. I was unbathed, unshaven, and had had no bowel movement. My nerves
were a-jangle. I did not like the way my little mistress shrugged her
shoulders and distended her nostrils when I attempted casual small talk. Had
Phyllis been in the know before she joined her parents in Maine? I asked
with a smile. “Look,” said Lo making a weeping grimace, “let us get off the
subject.” I then tried–also unsuccessfully, no matter how I smacked my
lips–to interest her in the road map. Our destination was, let me remind my
patient reader whose meek temper Lo ought to have copied, the gay town of
Lepingville, somewhere near a hypothetical hospital. That destination was in
itself a perfectly arbitrary one (as, alas, so many were to be), and I shook
in my shoes as I wondered how to keep the whole arrangement plausible, and
what other plausible objectives to invent after we had taken in all the
movies in Lepingville. More and more uncomfortable did Humbert Feel. It was
something quite special, that feeling: an oppressive, hideous constraint as
if I were sitting with the small ghost of somebody I had just killed.
As she was in the act of getting back into the car, an expression of
pain flitted across Lo’s face. It flitted again, more meaningfully, as she
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settled down beside me. No doubt, she reproduced it that second time for my
benefit. Foolishly, I asked her what was the matter. “Nothing, you brute,”
she replied. “You what?” I asked. She was silent. Leaving Briceland.
Loquacious Lo was silent. Cold spiders of panic crawled down my back. This
was an orphan. This was a lone child, an absolute waif, with whom a
heavy-limbed, foul-smelling adult had had strenuous intercourse three times
that very morning. Whether or not the realization of a lifelong dream had
surpassed all expectation, it had, in a sense, overshot its mark–and
plunged into a nightmare. I had been careless, stupid, and ignoble. And let
me be quite frank: somewhere at the bottom of that dark turmoil I felt the
writhing of desire again, so monstrous was my appetite for that miserable
nymphet. Mingled with the pangs of guilt was the agonizing through that her
mood might prevent me from making love to her again as soon as I found a
nice country road where to park in peace. In other words, poor Humbert
Humbert was dreadfully unhappy, and while steadily and inanely driving
toward Lepingville, he kept racking his brains for some quip, under the
bright wing of which he might dare turn to his seatmate. It was she,
however, who broke the silence:
“Oh, a squashed squirrel,” she said. “What a shame.”
“Yes, isn’t it?” (eager, hopeful Hum).
“Let us stop at the next gas station,” Lo continued. “I want to go to
the washroom.”
“We shall stop wherever you want,” I said. And then as a lovely,
lonely, supercilious grove (oaks, I thought; American trees at that stage
were beyond me) started to echo greenly the rush of our car, a red and ferny
road on our right turned its head before slanting into the woodland, and I
suggested we might perhaps–
“Drive on,” my Lo cried shrilly.
“Righto. Take it easy.” (Down, poor beast, down.)
I glanced at her. Thank God, the child was smiling.
“You chump,” she said, sweetly smiling at me. “You revolting creature.
I was a daisy-fresh girl, and look what you’ve done to me. I ought to call
the police and tell them you raped me. Oh, you dirty, dirty old man.”
Was she just joking? An ominous hysterical note rang through her silly
words. Presently, making a sizzling sound with her lips, she started
complaining of pains, said she could not sit, said I had torn something
inside her. The sweat rolled down my neck, and we almost ran over some
little animal or other that was crossing the road with tail erect, and again
my vile-tempered companion called me an ugly name. When we stopped at the
filling station, she scrambled out without a word and was a long time away.
Slowly, lovingly, an elderly friend with a broken nose wiped my
windshield–they do it differently at every place, from chamois cloth to
soapy brush, this fellow used a pink sponge.
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She appeared at last. “Look,” she said in that neutral voice that hurt
me so, “give me some dimes and nickels. I want to call mother in that
hospital. What’s the number?”
“Get in,” I said. “You can’t call that number.”
“Why?”
“Get in and slam the door.”
She got in and slammed the door. The old garage man beamed at her. I
swung onto the highway.
“Why can’t I call my mother if I want to?”
“Because,” I answered, “your mother is dead.”
33
In the gay town of Lepingville I bought her four books of comics, a box
of candy, a box of sanitary pads, two cokes, a manicure set, a travel clock
with a luminous dial, a ring with a real topaz, a tennis racket, roller
skates with white high shoes, field glasses, a portable radio set, chewing
gum, a transparent raincoat, sunglasses, some more garments–swooners,
shorts, all kinds of summer frocks. At the hotel we had separate rooms, but
in the middle of the night she came sobbing into mine, and we made it up
very gently. You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.
* PART TWO *
1
It was then that began our extensive travels all over the States. To
any other type of tourist accommodation I soon grew to prefer the Functional
Motel–clean, neat, safe nooks, ideal places for sleep, argument,
reconciliation, insatiable illicit love. At first, in my dread of arousing
suspicion, I would eagerly pay for both sections of one double unit, each
containing a double bed. I wondered what type of foursome this arrangement
was even intended for, since only a pharisaic parody of privacy could be
attained by means of the incomplete partition dividing the cabin or room
into two communicating love nests. By and by, the very possibilities that
such honest promiscuity suggested (two young couples merrily swapping mates
or a child shamming sleep to earwitness primal sonorities) made me bolder,
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and every now and then I would take a bed-and-cot or twin-bed cabin, a
prison cell or paradise, with yellow window shades pulled down to create a
morning illusion of Venice and sunshine when actually it was Pennsylvania
and rain.
We came to know–nous connømes, to use a Flaubertian
intonation–the stone cottages under enormous Chateaubriandesque trees, the
brick unit, the adobe unit, the stucco court, on what the Tour Book of the
Automobile Association describes as “shaded” or “spacious” or “landscaped”
grounds. The log kind, finished in knotty pine, reminded Lo, by its
golden-brown glaze, of friend-chicken bones. We held in contempt the plain
whitewashed clapboard Kabins, with their faint sewerish smell or some other
gloomy self-conscious stench and nothing to boast of (except “good beds”),
and an unsmiling landlady always prepared to have her gift (“. . . well, I
could give you . . .”) turned down.
Nous connømes (this is royal fun) the would-be enticements of
their repetitious names–all those Sunset Motels, U-Beam Cottages, Hillcrest
Courts, Pine View Courts, Mountain View Courts, Skyline Courts, Park Plaza
Courts, Green Acres, Mac’s Courts. There was sometimes a special line in the
write-up, such as “Children welcome, pets allowed” (You are welcome,
you are allowed). The baths were mostly tiled showers, with an
endless variety of spouting mechanisms, but with one definitely
non-Laodicean characteristic in common, a propensity, while in use, to turn
instantly beastly hot or blindingly cold upon you, depending on whether your
neighbor turned on his cold or his hot to deprive you of a necessary
complement in the shower you had so carefully blended. Some motels had
instructions pasted above the toilet (on whose tank the towels were
unhygienically heaped) asking guests not to throw into its bowl garbage,
beer cans, cartons, stillborn babies; others had special notices under
glass, such as Things to Do (Riding: You will often see riders coming
down Main Street on their way back from a romantic moonlight ride.
“Often at 3 a.m.,” sneered unromantic Lo).
Nous connømes the various types of motor court operators, the
reformed criminal, the retired teacher and the business flop, among the
males; and the motherly, pseudo-ladylike and madamic variants among the
females. And sometimes trains would cry in the monstrously hot and humid
night with heartrending and ominous plangency, mingling power and hysteria
in one desperate scream.
We avoided Tourist Homes, country cousins of Funeral ones,
old-fashioned, genteel and showerless, with elaborate dressing tables in
depressingly white-and-pink little bedrooms, and photographs of the
landlady’s children in all their instars. But I did surrender, now and then,
to Lo’s predilection for “real” hotels. She would pick out in the book,
while I petted her in the parked car in the silence of a dusk-mellowed,
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mysterious side-road, some highly recommended lake lodge which offered all
sorts of things magnified by the flashlight she moved over them, such as
congenial company, between-meals snacks, outdoor barbecues–but which in my
mind conjured up odious visions of stinking high school boys in sweatshirts
and an ember-red cheek pressing against hers, while poor Dr. Humbert,
embracing nothing but two masculine knees, would cold-humor his piles on the
damp turf. Most empty to her, too, were those “Colonial” Inns, which apart
from “gracious atmosphere” and picture windows, promised “unlimited
quantities of M-m-m food.” Treasured recollections of my father’s palatial
hotel sometimes led me to seek for its like in the strange country we
traveled through. I was soon discouraged; but Lo kept following the scent of
rich food ads, while I derived a not exclusively economic kick from such
roadside signs as Timber Hotel, Children under 14 Free. On the other
hand, I shudder when recalling that soi-disant “high-class” resort in
a Midwestern state, which advertised “raid-the-icebox” midnight snacks and,
intrigued by my accent, wanted to know my dead wife’s and dead mother’s
maiden names. A two-days’ stay there cost me a hundred and twenty-four
dollars! And do you remember, Miranda, that other “ultrasmart” robbers’ den
with complimentary morning coffee and circulating ice water, and no children
under sixteen (no Lolitas, of course)?
Immediately upon arrival at one of the plainer motor courts which
became our habitual haunts, she would set the electric fan a-whirr, or
induce me to drop a quarter into the radio, or she would read all the signs
and inquire with a whine why she could not go riding up some advertised
trail or swimming in that local pool of warm mineral water. Most often, in
the slouching, bored way she cultivated, Lo would fall prostrate and
abominably desirable into a red springchair or a green chaise longue, or a
steamer chair of striped canvas with footrest and canopy, or a sling chair,
or any other lawn chair under a garden umbrella on the patio, and it would
take hours of blandishments, threats and promises to make her lend me for a
few seconds her brown limbs in the seclusion of the five-dollar room before
undertaking anything she might prefer to my poor joy.
A combination of naîvetè and deception, of charm and vulgarity, of blue
silks and rosy mirth, Lolita, when she chose, could be a most exasperating
brat. I was not really quite prepared for her fits of disorganized boredom,
intense and vehement griping, her sprawling, droopy, dopey-eyed style, and
what is called goofing off–a kind of diffused clowning which she thought
was tough in a boyish hoodlum way. Mentally, I found her to be a
disgustingly conventional little girl. Sweet hot jazz, square dancing, gooey
fudge sundaes, musicals, movie magazines and so forth–these were the
obvious items in her list of beloved things. The Lord knows how many nickels
I fed to the gorgeous music boxes that came with every meal we had! I still
hear the nasal voices of those invisibles serenading her, people with names
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like Sammy and Jo and Eddy and Tony and Peggy and Guy and Patty and Rex, and
sentimental song hits, all of them as similar to my ear as her various
candies were to my palate. She believed, with a kind of celestial trust, any
advertisement or advice that that appeared in Movie Love or Screen
Land–Starasil Starves Pimples, or “You better watch out if you’re
wearing your shirttails outside your jeans, gals, because Jill says you
shouldn’t.” If a roadside sign said: Visit Our Gift Shop–we had to
visit it, had to buy its Indian curios, dolls, copper jewelry, cactus
candy. The words “novelties and souvenirs” simply entranced her by their
trochaic lilt. If some cafè sign proclaimed Icecold Drinks, she was
automatically stirred, although all drinks everywhere were ice-cold. She it
was to whom ads were dedicated: the ideal consumer, the subject and object
of every foul poster. And she attempted–unsuccessfully-to patronize only
those restaurants where the holy spirit of Huncan Dines had descended upon
the cute paper napkins and cottage-cheese-crested salads.
In those days, neither she nor I had thought up yet the system of
monetary bribes which was to work such havoc with my nerves and her morals
somewhat later. I relied on three other methods to keep my pubescent
concubine in submission and passable temper. A few years before, she had
spent a rainy summer under Miss Phalen’s bleary eye in a dilapidated
Appalachian farmhouse that had belonged to some gnarled Haze or other in the
dead past. It still stood among its rank acres of golden rod on the edge of
a flowerless forest, at the end of a permanently muddy road, twenty miles
from the nearest hamlet. Lo recalled that scarecrow of a house, the
solitude, the soggy old pastures, the wind, the bloated wilderness, with an
energy of disgust that distorted her mouth and fattened her half-revealed
tongue. And it was there that I warned her she would dwell with me in exile
for months and years if need be, studying under me French and Latin, unless
her “present attitude” changed. Charlotte, I began to understand you!
A simple child, Lo would scream no! and frantically clutch at my
driving hand whenever I put a stop to her tornadoes of temper by turning in
the middle of a highway with the implication that I was about to take her
straight to that dark and dismal abode. The farther, however, we traveled
away from it west, the less tangible that menace became, and I had to adopt
other methods of persuasion.
Among these, the reformatory threat is the one I recall with the
deepest moan of shame. From the very beginning of our concourse, I was
clever enough to realize that I must secure her complete co-operation in
keeping our relations secret, that it should become a second nature with
her, no matter what grudge she might bear me, no matter what other pleasure
she might seek.
“Come and kiss your old man,” I would say, “and drop that moody
nonsense. In former times, when I was still your dream male [the reader will
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notice what pains I took to speak Lo’s tongue], you swooned to records of
the number one throb-and-sob idol of your coevals [Lo: “Of my what? Speak
English”]. That idol of your pals sounded, you thought, like friend Humbert.
But now, I am just your old man, a dream dad protecting his dream
daughter.
“My chõre Dolorès ! I want to protect you, dear, from all the
horrors that happen to little girls in coal sheds and alley ways, and alas,
comme vous le savez trop bien, ma gentille, in the blueberry woods
during the bluest of summers. Through thick and thin I will still stay your
guardian, and if you are good, I hope a court may legalize that guardianship
before long. Let us, however, forget, Dolores Haze, so-called legal
terminology, terminology that accepts as rational the term ‘lewd and
lascivious cohabitation.’ I am not a criminal sexual psychopath taking
indecent liberties with a child. The rapist was Charlie Holmes; I am the
therapist–a matter of nice spacing in the way of distinction. I am your
daddum, Lo. Look, I’ve a learned book here about young girls. Look, darling,
what it says. I quote: the normal girl–normal, mark you–the normal girl is
usually extremely anxious to please her father. She feels in him the
forerunner of the desired elusive male (‘elusive’ is good, by Polonius!).
The wise mother (and your poor mother would have been wise, had she lived)
will encourage a companionship between father and daughter,
realizing–excuse the corny style–that the girl forms her ideals of romance
and of men from her association with her father. Now, what association does
this cheery book mean–and recommend? I quote again: Among Sicilians sexual
relations between a father and his daughter are accepted as a matter of
course, and the girl who participates in such relationship is not looked
upon with disapproval by the society of which she is part. I’m a great
admirer of Sicilians, fine athletes, fine musicians, fine upright people,
Lo, and great lovers. But let’s not digress. Only the other day we read in
the newspapers some bunkum about a middle-aged morals offender who pleaded
guilty to the violation of the Mann Act and to transporting a nine-year-old
girl across state lines for immoral purposes, whatever these are. Dolores
darling! You are not nine but almost thirteen, and I would not advise you to
consider yourself my cross-country slave, and I deplore the Mann Act as
lending itself to a dreadful pun, the revenge that the Gods of Semantics
take against tight-zippered Philistines. I am your father, and I am
speaking English, and I love you.
“Finally, let us see what happens if you, a minor, accused of having
impaired the morals of an adult in a respectable inn, what happens if you
complain to the police of my having kidnapped and raped you? Let us suppose
they believe you. A minor female, who allows a person over twenty-one to
know her carnally, involves her victim into statutory rape, or second-degree
sodomy, depending on the technique; and the maximum penalty is ten years.
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So, I go to jail. Okay. I go to jail. But what happens to you, my orphan?
Well, you are luckier. You become the ward of the Department of Public
Welfare–which I am afraid sounds a little bleak. A nice grim matron of the
Miss Phalen type, but more rigid and not a drinking woman, will take away
your lipstick and fancy clothes. No more gadding about! I don’t know if you
have ever heard of the laws relating to dependent, neglected, incorrigible
and delinquent children. While I stand gripping the bars, you, happy
neglected child, will be given a choice of various dwelling places, all more
or less the same, the correctional school, the reformatory, the juvenile
detention home, or one of those admirable girls’ protectories where you knit
things, and sing hymns, and have rancid pancakes on Sundays. You will go
there, Lolita–my Lolita, this Lolita will leave plainer
words, if we two are found out, you will be analyzed and institutionalized,
my pet, c’est tout. You will dwell, my Lolita will dwell (come here,
my brown flower) with thirty-nine other dopes in a dirty dormitory (no,
allow me, please) under the supervision of hideous matrons. This is the
situation, this is the choice. Don’t you think that under the circumstances
Dolores Haze had better stick to her old man?”
By rubbing all this in, I succeeded in terrorizing Lo, who despite a
certain brash alertness of manner and spurts of wit was not as intelligent a
child as her I.Q. might suggest. But if I managed to establish that
background of shared secrecy and shared guilt, I was much less successful in
keeping her in good humor. Every morning during our yearlong travels I had
to devise some expectation, some special point in space and time for her to
look forward to, for her to survive till bedtime. Otherwise, deprived of a
shaping and sustaining purpose, the skeleton of her day sagged and
collapsed. The object in view might be anything–a lighthouse in Virginia, a
natural cave in Arkansas converted to a cafè, a collection of guns and
violins somewhere in Oklahoma, a replica of the Grotto of Lourdes in
Louisiana, shabby photographs of the bonanza mining period in the local
museum of a Rocky Mountains resort, anything whatsoever–but it had to be
there, in front of us, like a fixed star, although as likely as not Lo would
feign gagging as soon as we got to it.
By putting the geography of the United States into motion, I did my
best for hours on end to give her the impression of “going places,” of
rolling on to some definite destination, to some unusual delight. I have
never seen such smooth amiable roads as those that now radiated before us,
across the crazy quilt of forty-eight states. Voraciously we consumed those
long highways, in rapt silence we glided over their glossy black dance
floors. Not only had Lo no eye for scenery but she furiously resented my
calling her attention to this or that enchanting detail of landscape; which
I myself learned to discern only after being exposed for quite a time to the
delicate beauty ever present in the margin of our undeserving journey. By a
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paradox of pictorial thought, the average lowland North-American countryside
had at first seemed to me something I accepted with a shock of amused
recognition because of those painted oilclothes which were imported from
America in the old days to be hung above washstands in Central-European
nurseries, and which fascinated a drowsy child at bed time with the rustic
green views they depicted–opaque curly trees, a barn, cattle, a brook, the
dull white of vague orchards in bloom, and perhaps a stone fence or hills of
greenish gouache. But gradually the models of those elementary rusticities
became stranger and stranger to the eye, the nearer I came to know them.
Beyond the tilled plain, beyond the toy roofs, there would be a slow
suffusion of inutile loveliness, a low sun in a platinum haze with a warm,
peeled-peach tinge pervading the upper edge of a two-dimensional, dove-gray
cloud fusing with the distant amorous mist. There might be a line of spaced
trees silhouetted against the horizon, and hot still noons above a
wilderness of clover, and Claude Lorrain clouds inscribed remotely into
misty azure with only their cumulus part conspicuous against the neutral
swoon of the background. Or again, it might be a stern El Greco horizon,
pregnant with inky rain, and a passing glimpse of some mummy-necked farmer,
and all around alternating strips of quick-silverish water and harsh green
corn, the whole arrangement opening like a fan, somewhere in Kansas.
Now and then, in the vastness of those plains, huge trees would advance
toward us to cluster self-consciously by the roadside and provide a bit of
humanitarian shade above a picnic table, with sun flecks, flattened paper
cups, samaras and discarded ice-cream sticks littering the brown ground. A
great user of roadside facilities, my unfastidious Lo would be charmed by
toilet signs–Guys-Gals, John-Jane, Jack-Jill and even Buck’s-Doe’s; while
lost in an artist’s dream, I would stare at the honest brightness of the
gasoline paraphernalia against the splendid green of oaks, or at a distant
hill scrambling out–scarred but still untamed–from the wilderness of
agriculture that was trying to swallow it.
At night, tall trucks studded with colored lights, like dreadful giant
Christmas trees, loomed in the darkness and thundered by the belated little
sedan. And again next day a thinly populated sky, losing its blue to the
heat, would melt overhead, and Lo would clamor for a drink, and her cheeks
would hollow vigorously over the straw, and the car inside would be a
furnace when we got in again, and the road shimmered ahead, with a remote
car changing its shape mirage-like in the surface glare, and seeming to hang
for a moment, old-fashionedly square and high, in the hot haze. And as we
pushed westward, patches of what the garage-man called “sage brush”
appeared, and then the mysterious outlines of table-like hills, and then red
bluffs ink-blotted with junipers, and then a mountain range, dun grading
into blue, and blue into dream, and the desert would meet us with a steady
gale, dust, gray thorn bushes, and hideous bits of tissue paper mimicking
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pale flowers among the prickles of wind-tortured withered stalks all along
the highway; in the middle of which there sometimes stood simple cows,
immobilized in a position (tail left, white eyelashes right) cutting across
all human rules of traffic.
My lawyer has suggested I give a clear, frank account of the itinerary
we followed, and I suppose I have reached here a point where I cannot avoid
that chore. Roughly, during that mad year (August 1947 to August 1948), our
route began with a series of wiggles and whorls in New England, then
meandered south, up and down, east and west; dipped deep into ce qu’on
appelle Dixieland, avoided Florida because the Farlows were there,
veered west, zigzagged through corn belts and cotton belts (this is not
too clear I am afraid, Clarence, but I did not keep any notes, and
have at my disposal only an atrociously crippled tour book in three volumes,
almost a symbol of my torn and tattered past, in which to check these
recollections); crossed and recrossed the Rockies, straggled through
southern deserts where we wintered; reached the Pacific, turned north
through the pale lilac fluff of flowering shrubs along forest roads; almost
reached the Canadian border; and proceeded east, across good lands and bad
lands, back to agriculture on a grand scale, avoiding, despite little Lo’s
strident remonstrations, little Lo’s birthplace, in a corn, coal and hog
producing area; and finally returned to the fold of the East, petering out
in the college town of Beardsley.
2
Now, in perusing what follows, the reader should bear in mind not only
the general circuit as adumbrated above, with its many sidetrips and tourist
traps, secondary circles and skittish deviations, but also the fact that far
from being an indolent partie de plaisir, our tour was a hard,
twisted, teleological growth, whose sole raison d’étre (these French
clichès are symptomatic) was to keep my companion in passable humor from
kiss to kiss.
Thumbing through that battered tour book, I dimly evoke that Magnolia
Garden in a southern state which cost me four bucks and which, according to
the ad in the book, you must visit for three reasons: because John
Galsworthy (a stone-dead writer of sorts) acclaimed it as the world’s
fairest garden; because in 1900 Baedeker’s Guide had marked it with a star;
and finally, because . . . O, Reader, My Reader, guess! . . . because
children (and by Jingo was not my Lolita a child!) will “walk starry-eyed
and reverently through this foretaste of Heaven, drinking in beauty that can
influence a life.” “Not mine,” said grim Lo, and settled down on a bench
with the fillings of two Sunday papers in her lovely lap.
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We passed and re-passed through the whole gamut of American roadside
restaurants, from the lowly Eat with its deer head (dark trace of long tear
at inner canthus), “humorous” picture post cards of the posterior “Kurort”
type, impaled guest checks, life savers, sunglasses, adman visions of
celestial sundaes, one half of a chocolate cake under glass, and several
horribly experienced flies zigzagging over the sticky sugar-pour on the
ignoble counter; and all the way to the expensive place with the subdued
lights, preposterously poor table linen, inept waiters (ex-convicts or
college boys), the roan back of a screen actress, the sable eyebrows of her
male of the moment, and an orchestra of zoot-suiters with trumpets.
We inspected the world’s largest stalagmite in a cave where three
southeastern states have a family reunion; admission by age; adults one
dollar, pubescents sixty cents. A granite obelisk commemorating the Battle
of Blue Licks, with old bones and Indian pottery in the museum nearby, Lo a
dime, very reasonable. The present log cabin boldly simulating the past log
cabin where Lincoln was born. A boulder, with a plaque, in memory of the
author of “Trees” (by now we are in Poplar Cove, N.C., reached by what my
kind, tolerant, usually so restrained tour book angrily calls “a very narrow
road, poorly maintained,” to which, though no Kilmerite, I subscribe). From
a hired motor-boat operated by an elderly, but still repulsively handsome
White Russian, a baron they said (Lo’s palms were damp, the little fool),
who had known in California good old Maximovich and Valeria, we could
distinguish the inaccessible “millionaires’ colony” on an island, somewhere
off the Georgia coast. We inspected further: a collection of European hotel
picture post cards in a museum devoted to hobbies at a Mississippi resort,
where with a hot wave of pride I discovered a colored photo of my father’s
Mirana, its striped awnings, its flag flying above the retouched palm trees.
“So what?” said Lo, squinting at the bronzed owner of an expensive car who
had followed us into the Hobby House. Relics of the cotton era. A forest in
Arkansas and, on her brown shoulder, a raised purple-pink swelling (the work
of some gnat) which I eased of its beautiful transparent poison between my
long thumbnails and then sucked till I was gorged on her spicy blood.
Bourbon Street (in a town named New Orleans) whose sidewalks, said the tour
book, “may [I liked the “may”] feature entertainment by pickaninnies who
will {I liked the “will” even better] tap-dance for pennies” (what fun),
while “its numerous small and intimate night clubs are thronged with
visitors” (naughty). Collections of frontier lore. Ante-bellum homes with
iron-trellis balconies and hand-worked stairs, the kind down which movie
ladies with sun-kissed shoulders run in rich Technicolor, holding up the
fronts of their flounced skirts with both little hands in that special way,
and the devoted Negress shaking her head on the upper landing. The Menninger
Foundation, a psychiatric clinic, just for the heck of it. A patch of
beautifully eroded clay; and yucca blossoms, so pure, so waxy, but lousy
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with creeping white flies. Independence, Missouri, the starting point of the
Old Oregon Trail; and Abiliene, Kansas, the home of the Wild Bill Something
Rodeo. Distant mountains. Near mountains. More mountains; bluish beauties
never attainable, or ever turning into inhabited hill after hill;
south-eastern ranges, altitudinal failures as alps go; heart and
sky-piercing snow-veined gray colossi of stone, relentless peaks appearing
from nowhere at a turn of the highway; timbered enormities, with a system of
neatly overlapping dark firs, interrupted in places by pale puffs of aspen;
pink and lilac formations, Pharaonic, phallic, “too prehistoric for words”
(blasè Lo); buttes of black lava; early spring mountains with young-elephant
lanugo along their spines; end-of-the-summer mountains, all hunched up,
their heavy Egyptian limbs folded under folds of tawny moth-eaten plush;
oatmeal hills, flecked with green round oaks; a last rufous mountain with a
rich rug of lucerne at its foot.
Moreover, we inspected: Little Iceberg Lake, somewhere in Colorado, and
the snow banks, and the cushionets of tiny alpine flowers, and more snow;
down which Lo in red-peaked cap tried to slide, and squealed, and was
snowballed by some youngsters, and retaliated in kind comme on dit.
Skeletons of burned aspens, patches of spired blue flowers. The various
items of a scenic drive. Hundreds of scenic drives, thousands of Bear
Creeks, Soda Springs, Painted Canyons. Texas, a drought-struck plain.
Crystal Chamber in the longest cave in the world, children under 12 free, Lo
a young captive. A collection of a local lady’s homemade sculptures, closed
on a miserable Monday morning, dust, wind, witherland. Conception Park, in a
town on the Mexican border which I dared not cross. There and elsewhere,
hundreds of gray hummingbirds in the dusk, probing the throats of dim
flowers. Shakespeare, a ghost town in New Mexico, where bad man Russian Bill
was colorfully hanged seventy years ago. Fish hatcheries. Cliff dwellings.
The mummy of a child (Florentine Bea’s Indian contemporary). Our twentieth
Hell’s Canyon. Our fiftieth Gateway to something or other fide that
tour book, the cover of which had been lost by that time. A tick in my
groin. Always the same three old men, in hats and suspenders, idling away
the summer afternoon under the trees near the public fountain. A hazy blue
view beyond railings on a mountain pass, and the backs of a family enjoying
it (with Lo, in a hot, happy, wild, intense, hopeful, hopeless
whisper–“Look, the McCrystals, please, let’s talk to them, please”–let’s
talk to them, reader!–“please! I’ll do anything you want, oh, please. .
.”). Indian ceremonial dances, strictly commercial. ART: American
Refrigerator Transit Company. Obvious Arizona, pueblo dwellings, aboriginal
pictographs, a dinosaur track in a desert canyon, printed there thirty
million years ago, when I was a child. A lanky, six-foot, pale boy with an
active Adam’s apple, ogling Lo and her orange-brown bare midriff, which I
kissed five minutes later, Jack. Winter in the desert, spring in the
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foothills, almonds in bloom. Reno, a dreary town in Nevada, with a nightlife
said to be “cosmopolitan and mature.” A winery in California, with a church
built in the shape of a wine barrel. Death Valley. Scotty’s Castle. Works of
Art collected by one Rogers over a period of years. The ugly villas of
handsome actresses. R. L. Stevenson’s footprint on an extinct volcano.
Mission Dolores: good title for book. Surf-carved sandstone festoons. A man
having a lavish epileptic fit on the ground in Russian Gulch State Park.
Blue, blue Crater Lake. A fish hatchery in Idaho and the State Penitentiary.
Somber Yellowstone Park and its colored hot springs, baby geysers, rainbows
of bubbling mud–symbols of my passion. A herd of antelopes in a wildlife
refuge. Our hundredth cavern, adults one dollar, Lolita fifty cents. A
chateau built by a French marquess in N.D. The Corn Palace in S.D.; and the
huge heads of presidents carved in towering granite. The Bearded Woman read
our jingle and now she is no longer single. A zoo in Indiana where a large
troop of monkeys lived on concrete replica of Christopher Columbus’
flagship. Billions of dead, or halfdead, fish-smelling May flies in every
window of every eating place all along a dreary sandy shore. Fat gulls on
big stones as seen from the ferry City of Cheboygan, whose brown
woolly smoke arched and dipped over the green shadow it cast on the
aquamarine lake. A motel whose ventilator pipe passed under the city sewer.
Lincoln’s home, largely spurious, with parlor books and period furniture
that most visitors reverently accepted as personal belongings.
We had rows, minor and major. The biggest ones we had took place: at
Lacework Cabins, Virginia; on Park Avenue, Little Rock, near a school; on
Milner Pass, 10,759 feet high, in Colorado; at the corner of Seventh Street
and Central Avenue in Phoenix, Arizona; on Third Street, Los Angeles,
because the tickets to some studio or other were sold out; at a motel called
Poplar Shade in Utah, where six pubescent trees were scarcely taller than my
Lolita, and where she asked, þ propos de rien, how long did I think
we were going to live in stuffy cabins, doing filthy things together and
never behaving like ordinary people? On N. Broadway, Burns, Oregon, corner
of W. Washington, facing Safeway, a grocery. In some little town in the Sun
Valley of Idaho, before a brick hotel, pale and flushed bricks nicely mixed,
with, opposite, a poplar playing its liquid shadows all over the local Honor
Roll. In a sage brush wilderness, between Pinedale and Farson. Somewhere in
Nebraska, on Main Street, near the First National Bank, established 1889,
with a view of a railway crossing in the vista of the street, and beyond
that the white organ pipes of a multiple silo. And on McEwen St., corner of
Wheaton Ave., in a Michigan town bearing his first name.
We came to know the curious roadside species, Hitchhiking Man, Homo
pollex of science, with all its many sub-species and forms; the modest
soldier, spic and span, quietly waiting, quietly conscious of khaki’s
viatric appeal; the schoolboy wishing to go two blocks; the killer wishing
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to go two thousand miles; the mysterious, nervous, elderly gent, with
brand-new suitcase and clipped mustache; a trio of optimistic Mexicans; the
college student displaying the grime of vacational outdoor work as proudly
as the name of the famous college arching across the front of his
sweatshirt; the desperate lady whose battery has just died on her; the
clean-cut, glossy-haired, shifty-eyed, white-faced young beasts in loud
shirts and coats, vigorously, almost priapically thrusting out tense thumbs
to tempt lone women or sadsack salesmen with fancy cravings.
“Let’s take him,” Lo would often plead, rubbing her knees together in a
way she had, as some particularly disgusting pollex, some man of my
age and shoulder breadth, with the face þ claques of unemployed
actor, walked backwards, practically in the path of our car.
Oh, I had to keep a very sharp eye on Lo, little limp Lo! Owing perhaps
to constant amorous exercise, she radiated, despite her very childish
appearance, some special languorous glow which threw garage fellows, hotel
pages, vacationists, goons in luxurious cars, maroon morons near blued
pools, into fits of concupiscence which might have tickled my pride, had it
not incensed my jealousy. For little Lo was aware of that glow of hers, and
I would often catch her coulant un regard in the direction of some
amiable male, some grease monkey, with a sinewy golden-brown forearm and
watch-braceleted wrist, and hardly had I turned my back to go and buy this
very Lo a lollipop, than I would hear her and the fair mechanic burst into a
perfect love song of wisecracks.
When, during our longer stops, I would relax after a particularly
violent morning in bed, and out of the goodness of my lulled heart allow
her–indulgent Hum!–to visit the rose garden or children’s library across
the street with a motor court neighbor’s plain little Mary and Mary’s
eight-year-old brother, Lo would come back an hour late, with barefoot Mary
trailing far behind, and the little boy metamorphosed into two gangling,
golden-haired high school uglies, all muscles and gonorrhea. The reader may
well imagine what I answered my pet when–rather uncertainly, I admit–she
would ask me if she could go with Carl and Al here to the roller-skating
rink.
I remember the first time, a dusty windy afternoon, I did let her go to
one such rink. Cruelly she said it would be no fun if I accompanied her,
since that time of day was reserved for teenagers. We wrangled out a
compromise: I remained in the car, among other (empty) cars with their noses
to the canvas-topped open-air rink, where some fifty young people, many in
pairs, were endlessly rolling round and round to mechanical music, and the
wind silvered the trees. Dolly wore blue jeans and white high shoes, as most
of the other girls did. I kept counting the revolutions of the rolling
crowd–and suddenly she was missing. When she rolled past again, she was
together with three hoodlums whom I had heard analyze a moment before the
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girl skaters from the outside–and jeer at a lovely leggy young thing who
had arrived clad in red shorts instead of those jeans and slacks.
At inspection stations on highways entering Arizona or California, a
policeman’s cousin would peer with such intensity at us that my poor heart
wobbled. “Any honey?” he would inquire, and every time my sweet fool
giggled. I still have, vibrating all along my optic nerve, visions of Lo on
horseback, a link in the chain of a guided trip along a bridle trail: Lo
bobbing at a walking pace, with an old woman rider in front and a lecherous
red-necked dude-rancher behind; and I behind him, hating his fat
flowery-shirted back even more fervently than a motorist does a slow truck
on a mountain road. Or else, at a ski lodge, I would see her floating away
from me, celestial and solitary, in an ethereal chairlift, up and up, to a
glittering summit where laughing athletes stripped to the waist were waiting
for her, for her.
In whatever town we stopped I would inquire, in my polite European way,
anent the whereabouts of natatoriums, museums, local schools, the number of
children in the nearest school and so forth; and at school bus time, smiling
and twitching a little (I discovered this tic nerveux because cruel
Lo was the first to mimic it), I would park at a strategic point, with my
vagrant schoolgirl beside me in the car, to watch the children leave
school–always a pretty sight. This sort of thing soon began to bore my so
easily bored Lolita, and, having a childish lack of sympathy for other
people’s whims, she would insult me and my desire to have her caress me
while blue-eyed little brunettes in blue shorts, copperheads in green
boleros, and blurred boyish blondes in faded slacks passed by in the sun.
As a sort of compromise, I freely advocated whenever and wherever
possible the use of swimming pools with other girl-children. She adored
brilliant water and was a remarkably smart diver. Comfortably robed, I would
settle down in the rich post-meridian shade after my own demure dip, and
there I would sit, with a dummy book or a bag of bonbons, or both, or
nothing but my tingling glands, and watch her gambol, rubber-capped,
bepearled, smoothly tanned, as glad as an ad, in her trim-fitted satin pants
and shirred bra. Pubescent sweetheart! How smugly would I marvel that she
was mine, mine, mine, and revise the recent matitudinal swoon to the moan of
the mourning doves, and devise the late afternoon one, and slitting my
sun-speared eyes, compare Lolita to whatever other nymphets parsimonious
chance collected around her for my anthological delectation and judgment;
and today, putting my hand on my ailing heart, I really do not think that
any of them ever surpassed her in desirability, or if they did, it was so
two or three times at the most, in a certain light, with certain perfumes
blended in the air–once in the hopeless case of a pale Spanish child, the
daughter of a heavy-jawed nobleman, and another time–mais je
divague.
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Naturally, I had to be always wary, fully realizing, in my lucid
jealousy, the danger of those dazzling romps. I had only to turn away for a
moment–to walk, say, a few steps in order to see if our cabin was at last
ready after the morning change of linen–and Lo and Behold, upon returning,
I would find the former, les yeux perdus, dipping and kicking her
long-toed feet in the water on the stone edge of which she lolled, while, on
either side of her, there crouched a brun adolescent whom her russet
beauty and the quicksilver in the baby folds of her stomach were sure to
cause to se tordre–oh Baudelaire!–in recurrent dreams for months to
come.
I tried to teach her to play tennis so we might have more amusements in
common; but although I had been a good player in my prime, I proved to be
hopeless as a teacher; and so, in California, I got her to take a number of
very expensive lessons with a famous coach, a husky, wrinkled old-timer,
with a harem of ball boys; he looked an awful wreck off the court, but now
and then, when, in the course of a lesson, to keep up the exchange, he would
put out as it were an exquisite spring blossom of a stroke and twang the
ball back to his pupil, that divine delicacy of absolute power made me
recall that, thirty years before, I had seen him in Cannes demolish
the great Gobbert! Until she began taking those lessons, I thought she would
never learn the game. On this or that hotel court I would drill Lo, and try
to relive the days when in a hot gale, a daze of dust, and queer lassitude,
I fed ball after ball to gay, innocent, elegant Annabel (gleam of bracelet,
pleated white skirt, black velvet hair band). With every word of persistent
advice I would only augment Lo’s sullen fury. To our games, oddly enough,
she preferred–at least, before we reached California–formless pat ball
approximations–more ball hunting than actual play–with a wispy, weak,
wonderfully pretty in an ange gauche way coeval. A helpful spectator,
I would go up to that other child, and inhale her faint musky fragrance as I
touched her forearm and held her knobby wrist, and push this way or that her
cool thigh to show her the back-hand stance. In the meantime, Lo, bending
forward, would let her sunny-brown curls hang forward as she stuck her
racket, like a cripple’s stick, into the ground and emitted a tremendous ugh
of disgust at my intrusion. I would leave them to their game and look on,
comparing their bodies in motion, a silk scarf round my throat; this was in
south Arizona, I think–and the days had a lazy lining warmth, and awkward
Lo would slash at the ball and miss it, and curse, and send a simulacrum of
a serve into the net, and show the wet glistening young down of her armpit
as she brandished her racket in despair, and her even more insipid partner
would dutifully rush out after every ball, and retrieve none; but both were
enjoying themselves beautifully, and in clear ringing tones kept the exact
score of their ineptitudes all the time.
One day, I remember, I offered to bring them cold drinks from the
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hotel, and went up the gravel path, and came back with two tall glasses of
pineapple juice, soda and ice; and then a sudden void within my chest made
me stop as I saw that the tennis court was deserted. I stooped to set down
the glasses on a bench and for some reason, with a kind of icy vividness,
saw Charlotte’s face in death, and I glanced around, and noticed Lo in white
shorts receding through the speckled shadow of a garden path in the company
of a tall man who carried two tennis rackets. I sprang after them, but as I
was crashing through the shrubbery, I saw, in an alternate vision, as if
life’s course constantly branched, Lo, in slacks, and her companion, in
shorts, trudging up and down a small weedy area, and beating bushes with
their rackets in listless search for their last lost ball.
I itemize these sunny nothings mainly to prove to my judges that I did
everything in my power to give my Lolita a really good time. How charming it
was to see her, a child herself, showing another child some of her few
accomplishments, such as for example a special way of jumping rope. With her
right hand holding her left arm behind her untanned back, the lesser
nymphet, a diaphanous darling, would be all eyes, as the pavonine sun was
all eyes on the gravel under the flowering trees, while in the midst of that
oculate paradise, my freckled and raffish lass skipped, repeating the
movements of so many others I had gloated over on the sun-shot, watered,
damp-smelling sidewalks and ramparts of ancient Europe. Presently, she would
hand the rope back to her little Spanish friend, and watch in her turn the
repeated lesson, and brush away the hair from her brow, and fold her arms,
and step on one toe with the other, or drop her hands loosely upon her still
unflared hips, and I would satisfy myself that the damned staff had at last
finished cleaning up our cottage; whereupon, flashing a smile to the shy,
dark-haired page girl of my princess and thrusting my fatherly fingers deep
into Lo’s hair from behind, and then gently but firmly clasping them around
the nape of her neck, I would lead my reluctant pet to our small home for a
quick connection before dinner.
“Whose cat has scratched poor you?” A full-blown fleshy handsome woman
of the repulsive type to which I was particularly attractive might ask me at
the “lodge,” during a table d’hote dinner followed by dancing promised to
Lo. This was one of the reasons why I tried to keep as far away from people
as possible, while Lo, on the other hand, would do her utmost to draw as
many potential witnesses into her orbit as she could.
She would be, figuratively speaking wagging her tiny tail, her whole
behind in fact as little bitches do–while some grinning stranger accosted
us and began a bright conversation with a comparative study of license
plates. “Long way from home!” Inquisitive parents, in order to pump Lo about
me, would suggest her going to a movie with their children. We had some
close shaves. The waterfall nuisance pursued me of course in all our
caravansaries. But I never realized how wafery their wall substance was
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until one evening, after I had loved too loudly, a neighbor’s masculine
cough filled the pause as clearly as mine would have done; and next morning
as I was having breakfast at the milk bar (Lo was a late sleeper, and I
liked to bring her a pot of hot coffee in bed), my neighbor of the eve, an
elderly fool wearing plain glasses on his long virtuous nose and a
convention badge on his lapel, somehow managed to rig up a conversation with
me, in the course of which he inquired, if my missus was like his missus a
rather reluctant get-upper when not on the farm; and had not the hideous
danger I was skirting almost suffocated me, I might have enjoyed the odd
look of surprise on his thin-lipped weather-beaten face when I dryly
answered, as I slithered off my stool, that I was thank God a widower.
How sweet it was to bring that coffee to her, and then deny it until
she had done her morning duty. And I was such a thoughtful friend, such a
passionate father, such a good pediatrician, attending to all the wants of
my little auburn brunette’s body! My only grudge against nature was that I
could not turn my Lolita inside out and apply voracious lips to her young
matrix, her unknown heart, her nacreous liver, the sea-grapes of her lungs,
her comely twin kidneys. On especially tropical afternoons, in the sticky
closeness of the siesta, I liked the cool feel of armchair leather against
my massive nakedness as I held her in my lap. There she would be, a typical
kid picking her nose while engrossed in the lighter sections of a newspaper,
as indifferent to my ecstasy as if it were something she had sat upon, a
shoe, a doll, the handle of a tennis racket, and was too indolent to remove.
Her eyes would follow the adventures of her favorite strip characters: there
was one well-drawn sloppy bobby-soxer, with high cheekbones and angular
gestures, that I was not above enjoying myself; she studied the photographic
results of head-on collisions; she never doubted the reality of place, time,
and circumstance alleged to match the publicity pictures of naked-thighed
beauties; and she was curiously fascinated by the photographs of local
brides, some in full wedding apparel, holding bouquets and wearing glasses.
A fly would settle and walk in the vicinity of her navel or explore her
tender pale areolas. She tried to catch it in her fist (Charlotte’s method)
and then would turn to the column Let’s Explore Your Mind.
“Let’s explore your mind. Would sex crimes be reduced if children
obeyed a few don’ts? Don’t play around public toilets. Don’t take candy or
rides from strangers. If picked up, mark down the license of the car.”
“. . . and the brand of the candy,” I volunteered.
She went on, her cheek (recedent) against mine (pursuant); and this was
a good day, mark, O reader!
“If you don’t have a pencil, but are old enough to read–”
“We,” I quip-quoted, “medieval mariners, have placed in this bottle–”
“If,” she repeated, “you don’t have a pencil, but are old enough to
read and write–this is what the guy means, isn’t it, you dope–=scratch the
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number somehow on the roadside.”
“With your little claws, Lolita.”
She had entered my world, umber and black Humberland, with rash
curiosity; she surveyed it with a shrug of amused distaste; and it seemed to
me now that she was ready to turn away from it with something akin to plain
repulsion. Never did she vibrate under my touch, and a strident “what d’you
think you are doing?” was all I got for my pains. To the wonderland I had to
offer, my fool preferred the corniest movies, the most cloying fudge. To
think that between a Hamburger and a Humburger, she would–invariably, with
icy precision–plump for the former. There is nothing more atrociously cruel
than an adored child. Did I mention the name of that milk bar I visited a
moment ago? It was, of all things, The Frigid Queen. Smiling a little sadly,
I dubbed her My Frigid Princess. She did not see the wistful joke.
Oh, do not scowl at me, reader, I do not intend to convey the impressin
that I did not manage to be happy. Readeer must understand that in the
possession and thralldom of a nymphet the enchanted traveler stands, as it
were, beyond happiness. For there is no other bliss on earth
comparable to that of fondling a nymphet. It is hors concours, that
bliss, it belongs to another class, another plane of sensitivity. Despite
our tiffs, despite her nastiness, despite all the fuss and faces she made,
and the vulgarity, and the danger, and the horrible hopelessness of it all,
I still dwelled deep in my elected paradise–a paradise whose skies were the
color of hell-flames–but still a paradise.
The able psychiatrist who studies my case–and whom by now Dr. Humbert
has plunged, I trust, into a state of leporine fascination–is no doubt
anxious to have me take Lolita to the seaside and have me find there, at
last, the “gratification” of a lifetime urge, and release from the
“subconscious” obsession of an incomplete childhood romance with the initial
little Miss Lee.
Well, comrade, let me tell you that I did look for a beach,
though I also have to confess that by the time we reached its mirage of gray
water, so many delights had already been granted me by my traveling
companion that the search for a Kingdom by the Sea, a Sublimated Riviera, or
whatnot, far from being the impulse of the subconscious, had become the
rational pursuit of a purely theoretical thrill. The angels knew it, and
arranged things accordingly. A visit to a plausible cove on the Atlantic
side was completely messed up by foul weather. A thick damp sky, muddy
waves, a sense of boundless but somehow matter-of-fact mist–what could be
further removed from the crisp charm, the sapphire occasion and rosy
contingency of my Riviera romance? A couple of semitropical beaches on the
Gulf, though bright enough, were starred and spattered by venomous beasties
and swept by hurricane winds. Finally, on a Californian beach, facing the
phantom of the Pacific, I hit upon some rather perverse privacy in a kind of
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cave whence you could hear the shrikes of a lot of girl scouts taking their
first surf bath on a separate part of the beach, behind rotting trees; but
the fog was like a wet blanket, and the sand was gritty and clammy, and Lo
was all gooseflesh and grit, and for the first time in my life I had as
little desire for her as for a manatee. Perhaps, my learned readers may perk
up if I tell them that even had we discovered a piece of sympathetic seaside
somewhere, it would have come too late, since my real liberation had
occurred much earlier: at the moment, in point of fact, when Annabel Haze,
alias Dolores Lee, alias Loleeta, had appeared tome, golden and brown,
kneeling, looking up, on that shoddy veranda, in a kind of fictitious,
dishonest, but eminently satisfactory seaside arrangement (although there
was nothing but a second-rate lake in the neighborhood.).
So much for those special sensations, influence, if not actually
brought about, by the tenets of modern psychiatry. Consequently, I turned
away–I headed my Lolita away–from beaches which were either too bleak when
lone, or too populous when ablaze. However, in recollection, I suppose, of
my hopeless hauntings of public parks in Europe, I was still keenly
interested in outdoor activities and desirous of finding suitable
playgrounds in the open where I had suffered such shameful privations. Here,
too, I was to be thwarted. The disappointment I must now register (as I
gently grade my story into an expression of the continuous risk and dread
that ran through my bliss) should in no wise reflect on the lyrical, epic,
tragic but never Arcadian American wilds. They are beautiful,
heart-rendingly beautiful, those wilds, with a quality of wide-eyed, unsung,
innocent surrender that my lacquered, toy-bright Swiss villages and
exhaustively lauded Alps no longer possess. Innumerable lovers have clipped
and kissed on the trim turf of old-would mountainsides, on the innerspring
moss, by a handy, hygienic rill, on rustic benches under the initialed oaks,
and in so many cabanes in so many beech forests. But in the Wilds of
America the open-air lover will not find it easy to indulge in the most
ancient of all crimes and pastimes. Poisonous plants burn his sweetheart’s
buttocks, nameless insects sting his; sharp items of the forest floor prick
his knees, insects hers; and all around there abides a sustained rustle of
potential snakes–que dis-je, of semi-extinct dragons!–while the
crablike seeds of ferocious flowers cling, in a hideous green crust, to
gartered black sock and sloppy white sock alike.
I am exaggerating a little. One summer noon, just below timberline,
where heavenly-hued blossoms that I would fain call larkspur crowded all
along a purly moutain brook, we did find, Lolita and I, a secluded romantic
spot, a hundred feet or so above the pass where we had left our car. The
slope seemed untrodden. A last panting pine was taking a well-earned
breather on the rock it had reached. A marmot whistled at us and withdrew.
Beneath the lap-robe I had spread fo Lo, dryflowers crepitated softly.
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Venus came and went. The jagged cliff crowning the upper talus and a tangle
of shrugs growing below us seemed to offer us protection from sun and man
alike. Alas, I had not reckoned with a faint side trail that curled up in
cagey fashion among the shrubs and rocks a few feet from us.
It was then that we came close to detection than ever before, and no
wonder the experience curbed forever my yearning for rural amours.
I remember the operation was over, all over, and she was weeping in my
arms;–a salutory storm of sobs after one of the fits of moodiness that had
become so frequent with her in the course of that otherwise admirable year!
I had just retracted some silly promise she had forced me to make in a
moment of blind impatient passion, and thee she was sprawling and sobbing,
and pinching my caressing hand, and I was laughing happily, and the
atrocious, unbelievable, unbearable, and, I suspect, eternal horror that I
know now was still but a dot of blackness in the blue of my bliss;
and so we lay, when with one of those jolts that have ended by knocking my
poor heart out of its groove, I met the unblinking dark eyes of two strange
and beautiful children, faunlet and nymphet, whom their identical flat dark
hair and bloodless cheeks proclaimed siblings if not twins. They stood
crouching and gaping at us, both in blue playsuits, blending with the
mountain blossoms. I plucked at the lap-robe for desperate concealment–and
within the same instant, something that looked like a polka-dotted pushball
among the undergrowth a few paces away, went into a turning motion which was
transformed into the gradually rising figure of a stout lady with a
raven-black bob, who automatically added a wild lily to her bouquet, while
staring over her shoulder at us from behind her lovely carved bluestone
children.
Now that I have an altogether different mess on my conscience, I know
that I am a courageous man, but in those days I was not aware of it, and I
remember being surprised by my own coolness. With the quiet murmured order
one gives a sweat-stained distracted cringing trained animal even in the
worst of plights (what mad hope or hate makes the young beast’s flanks
pulsate, what black stars pierce the heart of the tamer!), I made Lo get up,
and we decorously walked, and then indecorously scuttled down to the car.
Behind it a nifty station wagon was parked, and a handsome Assyrian with a
little blue-black beard, un monsieur trõs bien, in silk shirt and
magenta slacks, presumably the corpulent botanist’s husband, was gravely
taking the picture of a signboard giving the altitude of the pass. It was
well over 10,000 feet and I was quite out of breath; and with a scrunch and
a skid we drove off, Lo still struggling with her clothes and swearing at me
in language that I never dreamed little girls could know, let alone use.
There were other unpleasant incidents. There was the movie theatre
once, for example. Lo at the time still had for the cinema a veritable
passion (it was to decline into tepid condescension during her second high
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school year). We took in, voluptuously and indiscriminately, oh, I don’t
know, one hundred and fifty or two hundred programs during that one year,
and during some of the denser periods of movie-going we saw many of the
newsreels up to half-a-dozen times since the same weekly one went with
different main pictures and pursued us from town to town. Her favorite kinds
were, in this order: musicals, underworlders, westerners. In the first, real
singers and dancers had unreal stage careers in an essentially grief-proof
sphere of existence wherefrom death and truth were banned, and where, at the
end, white-haired, dewy-eyed, technically deathless, the initially reluctant
father of a show-crazy girl always finished by applauding her apotheosis on
fabulous Broadway. The underworld was a world apart: there, heroic
newspapermen were tortured, telephone bills ran to billions, and, in a
robust atmosphere of incompetent marksmanship, villains were chased through
sewers and store-houses by pathologically fearless cops (I was to give them
less exercise). Finally there was the mahogany landscape, the florid-faced,
blue-eyed roughriders, the prim pretty schoolteacher arriving in Roaring
Gulch, the rearing horse, the spectacular stampede, the pistol thrust
through the shivered windowpane, the stupendous fist fight, the crashing
mountain of dusty old-fashioned furniture, the table used as a weapon, the
timely somersault, the pinned hand still groping for the dropped bowie
knife, the grunt, the sweet crash of fist against chin, the kick in the
belly, the flying tackle; and immediately after a plethora of pain that
would have hospitalized a Hercules (I should know by now), nothing to show
but the rather becoming bruise on the bronzed cheek of the warmed-up hero
embracing his gorgeous frontier bride. I remember one matinee in a small
airless theatre crammed with children and reeking with the hot breath of
popcorn. The moon was yellow above the neckerchiefed crooner, and his finger
was on his strumstring, and his foot was on a pine log, and I had innocently
encircled Lo’s shoulder and approached my jawbone to her temple, when two
harpies behind us started muttering the queerest things–I do not know if I
understood aright, but what I thought I did, made me withdraw my gentle
hand, and of course the rest of the show was fog to me.
Another jolt I remember is connected with a little burg we were
traversing at night, during our return journey. Some twenty miles earlier I
had happened to tell her that the day school she would attend at Beardsley
was a rather high-class, non-coeducational one, with no modern nonsense,
whereupon Lo treated me to one of those furious harangues of hers where
entreaty and insult, self-assertion and double talk, vicious vulgarity and
childish despair, were interwoven in an exasperating semblance of logic
which prompted a semblance of explanation from me. Enmeshed in her wild
words (swell chance . . . I’d be a sap if I took your opinion seriously . .
. Stinker . . . You can’t boss me . . . I despise you . . . and so forth), I
drove through the slumbering town at a fifty-mile-per-hour pace in
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continuance of my smooth highway swoosh, and a twosome of patrolmen put
their spotlight on the car, and told me to pull over. I shushed Lo who was
automatically raving on. The men peered at her and me with malevolent
curiosity. Suddenly all dimples, she beamed sweetly at them, as she never
did at my orchideous masculinity; for, in a sense, my Lo was even more
scared of the law than I–and when the kind officers pardoned us and
servilely we crawled on, her eyelids closed and fluttered as she mimicked
limp prostration.
At this point I have a curious confession to make. You will laugh–but
really and truly I somehow never managed to find out quite exactly what the
legal situation was. I do not know it yet. Oh, I have learned a few odds and
ends. Alabama prohibits a guardian from changing the ward’s residence
without an order of the court; Minnesota, to whom I take off my hat,
provides that when a relative assumes permanent care and custody of any
child under fourteen, the authority of a court does not come into play.
Query: is the stepfather of a gaspingly adorable pubescent pet, a stepfather
of only one month’s standing, a neurotic widower of mature years and small
but independent means, with the parapets of Europe, a divorce and a few
madhouses behind him, is he to be considered a relative, and thus a natural
guardian? And if not, must I, and could I reasonably dare notify some
Welfare Board and file a petition (how do you file a petition?), and have a
court’s agent investigate meek, fishy me and dangerous Dolores Haze? The
many books on marriage, rape, adoption and so on, that I guiltily consulted
at the public libraries of big and small towns, told me nothing beyond
darkly insinuating that the state is the super-guardian of minor children.
Pilvin and Zapel, if I remember their names right, in an impressive volume
on the legal side of marriage, completely ignored stepfathers with
motherless girls on their hands and knees. My best friend, a social service
monograph(Chicago, 1936), which was dug out for me at great pains form a
dusty storage recess by an innocent old spinster, said “There is no
principle that every minor must have a guardian; the court is passive and
enters the fray only when the child’s situation becomes conspicuously
perilous.” A guardian, I concluded, was appointed only when he expressed his
solemn and formal desire; but months might elapse before he was given notice
to appear at a hearing and grow his pair of gray wings, and in the meantime
the fair demon child was legally left to her own devices which, after all,
was the case of Dolores Haze. Then came the hearing. A few questions from
the bench, a few reassuring answers from the attorney, a smile, a nod, a
light drizzle outside, and the appointment was made. And still I dared not.
Keep away, be a mouse, curl up in yourhole. Courts became extravagantly
active only when there was some monetary question involved: two greedy
guardians, a robbed orphan, a third, still greedier, party. But here all was
in perfect order, and inventory had been made, and her mother’s small
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property was waiting untouched for Dolores Haze to grow up. The best policy
seemed to be to refrain from any application. Or would some busybody, some
Humane Society, butt in if I kept too quiet?
Friend Farlow, who was a lawyer of sorts and ought to have been able to
give me some solid advice, was too much occupied with Jean’s cancer to do
anything more than what he had promised–namely, to look after Chrlotte’s
meager estate while I recovered very gradually from the shock of her death.
I had conditioned him into believing Dolores was my natural child, and so
could not expect him to bother his head about the situation. I am, as the
reader must have gathered by now, a poor businessman; but neither ignorance
nor indolence should have prevented me from seeking professional advice
elsewhere. What stopped me was the awful feeling that if I meddled with fate
in any way and tried to rationalize her fantastic gift, that gift would be
snatched away like that palace on the mountain top in the Oriental tale
which vanished whenever a prospective owner asked its custodian how come a
strip of sunset sky was clearly visible from afar between black rock and
foundation.
I decided that at Beardsley (the site of Bearsley College for Women) I
would have access to works of reference that I had not yet been able to
study, such as Woerner’s Treatise “On the American Law of Guardianship” and
certain United States Children’s Bureau Publications. I also decided that
anything was better for Lo than the demoralizing idleness in which she
lived. I could persuade her to do so many things–their list might stupefy
a professional educator; but no matter how I pleaded or stormed, I could
never make her read any other book than the so-called comic books or stories
in magazines for American females. Any literature a peg higher smacked to
her of school, and though theoretically willing to enjoy A Girl of the
Limberlost or the Arabian Nights, or Little Women, she was
quite sure she would not fritter away her “vacation” on such highbrow
reading matter.
I now think it was a great mistake to move east again and have her go
to that private school in Beardsley, instead of somehow scrambling across
the Mexican border while the scrambling was good so as to lie low for a
couple of years in subtropical bliss until I could safely marry my little
Creole; for I must confess that depending on the condition of my glands and
ganglia, I could switch in the course of the same day from one pole of
insanity to the other–from the thought that around 1950 I would have to get
rid somehow of a difficult adolescent whose magic nymphage had
evaporated–to the thought that with patience and luck might have her
produce eventually a nymphet with my blood in her exquisite veins, a Lolita
the Second, who would be eight or nine around 1960, when I would still be
dans la force de l’áge; indeed, the telescopy of my mind, or un-mind,
was strong enough to distinguish in the remoteness of time a vieillard
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encore vert–or was it green rot?–bizarre, tender, salivating Dr.
Humbert, practicing on supremely lovely Lolita the Third the art of being a
granddad.
In the days of that wild journey of ours, I doubted not that as father
to Lolita the First I was a ridiculous failure. I did my best; I read and
reread a book with the unintentionally biblical title Know Your Own
Daughter, which I got at the same store where I bought Lo, for her
thirteenth birthday, a de luxe volume with commercially “beautiful”
illustrations, of Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. But even at our very
best moments, when we sat reading on a rainy day (Lo’s glance skipping from
the window to her wrist watch and back again), or had a quiet hearty meal in
a crowded diner, or played a childish game of cards, or went shopping, or
silently stared, with other motorists and their children, at some smashed,
blood-bespattered car with a young woman’s shoe in the ditch (Lo, as we
drove on: “that was the exact type of moccasin I was trying to describe to
that jerk in the store”); on all those random occasions, I seemed to myself
as implausible a father as she seemed to be a daughter. Was, perhaps, guilty
locomotion instrumental in vitiating our powers of impersonation? Would
improvement be forthcoming with a fixed domicile and a routine schoolgirl’s
day?
In my choice of Beardsley I was guided not only by the fact of there
being a comparatively sedate school for girls located there, but also by the
presence of the women’s college. In my desire to get myself casè, to
attach myself somehow to some patterned surface which my stripes would blend
with, I thought of a man I knew in the department of French at Beardsley
College; he was good enough to use my textbook in his classes and had
attempted to get me over once to deliver a lecture. I had no intention of
doing so, since, as I have once remarked in the course of these confessions,
there are few physiques I loathe more than the heavy low-slung pelvis, thick
calves and deplorable complexion of the average coed (in whom I see, maybe,
the coffin of coarse female flesh within which my nymphets are buried
alive); but I did crave for a label, a background, and a simulacrum, and, as
presently will become clear, there was a reason, a rather zany reason, why
old Gaston Godin’s company would be particularly safe.
Finally, there was the money question. My income was cracking under the
strain of our joy-ride. True, I clung to the cheaper motor courts; but every
now and then, there would be a loud hotel de luxe, or a pretentious dude
ranch, to mutilate our budget; staggering sums, moreover, were expended on
sightseeing and Lo’s clothes, and the old Haze bus, although a still
vigorous and very devoted machine, necessitated numerous minor and major
repairs. In one of our strip maps that has happened to survive among the
papers which the authorities have so kindly allowed me to use for the
purpose of writing my statement, I find some jottings that help me compute
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the following. During that extravagant year 1947-1948, August to August,
lodgings and food cost us around 5,500 dollars; gas, oil and repairs,
1,234, and various extras almost as much; so that during about 150 days of
actual motion (we covered about 27,000 miles!) plus some 200 days of
interpolated standstills, this modest rentier spent around 8,000
dollars, or better say 10,000 because, unpractical as I am, I have surely
forgotten a number of items.
And so we rolled East, I more devastated than braced with the
satisfaction of my passion, and she glowing with health, her bi-iliac
garland still as brief as a lad’s, although she had added two inches to her
stature and eight pounds to her weight. We had been everywhere. We had
really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking that our long journey had
only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy,
enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a
collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in
the night–every night, every night–the moment I feigned sleep.
4
When, through decorations of light and shade, we drove to 14 Thayer
Street, a grave little lad met us with the keys and a note from Gaston who
had rented the house for us. My Lo, without granting her new surroundings
one glance, unseeingly turned on the radio to which instinct led her and lay
down on the living room sofa with a batch of old magazines which in the same
precise and blind manner she landed by dipping her hand into the nether
anatomy of a lamp table.
I really did not mind where to dwell provided I could lock my Lolita up
somewhere; but I had, I suppose, in the course of my correspondence with
vague Gaston, vaguely visualized a house of ivied brick. Actually the place
bore a dejected resemblance to the Haze home (a mere 400 distant): it was
the same sort of dull gray frame affair with a shingled roof and dull green
drill awnings; and the rooms, though smaller and furnished in a more
consistent plush-and-plate style, were arranged in much the same order. My
study turned out to be, however, a much larger room, lined from floor to
ceiling with some two thousand books on chemistry which my landlord (on
sabbatical leave for the time being) taught at Beardsley College.
I had hoped Beardsley School for girls, an expensive day school, with
lunch thrown in and a glamorous gymnasium, would, while cultivating all
those young bodies, provide some formal education for their minds as well.
Gaston Godin, who was seldom right in his judgment of American habitus, had
warned me that the institution might turn out to be one of those where girls
are taught, as he put it with a foreigner’s love for such things: “not to
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spell very well, but to smell very well.” I don’t think they achieved even
that.
At my first interview with headmistress Pratt, she approved of my
child’s “nice blue eyes” (blue! Lolita!) and of my own friendship with that
“French genius” (a genius! Gaston!)–and then, having turned Dolly over to a
Miss Cormorant, she wrinkled her brow in a kind of recueillement and
said:
“We are not so much concerned, Mr. Humbird, with having our students
become bookworms or be able to reel off all the capitals of Europe which
nobody knows anyway, or learn by heart the dates of forgotten battles. What
we are concerned with is the adjustment of the child to group life. This is
why we stress the four D’s: Dramatics, Dance, Debating and Dating. We are
confronted by certain facts. Your delightful Dolly will presently enter an
age group where dates, dating, date dress, date book, date etiquette, mean as
much to her as, say, business, business connections, business success, mean
to you, or as much as [smiling] the happiness of my girls means to me.
Dorothy Humbird is already involved in a whole system of social life which
consists, whether we like it or not, of hot-dog stands, corner drugstores,
malts and cokes, movies, square-dancing, blanket parties on beaches, and
even hair-fixing parties! Naturally at Beardsley School we disapprove of
some of these activities; and we rechannel others into more constructive
directions. But we do try to turn our backs on the fog and squarely face the
sunshine. To put it briefly, while adopting certain teaching techniques, we
are more interested in communication than in composition. That is, with due
respect to Shakespeare and others, we want our girls to communicate
freely with the live world around them rather than plunge into musty old
books. We are still groping perhaps, but we grope intelligently, like a
gynecologist feeling a tumor. We thing, Dr. Humburg, in organissmal and
organizational terms. We have done away with the mass or irrelevant topics
that have traditionally been presented to young girls, leaving no place, in
former days, for the knowledges and the skills, and the attitudes they will
need in managing their lives and–as the cynic might add–the lives of their
husbands. Mr. Humberson, let us put it this way: the position of a star is
important, but the most practical spot for an icebox in the kitchen may be
even more important to the budding housewife. You say that all you expect a
child to obtain from school is a sound education. But what do we mean by
education? In the old days it was in the main a verbal phenomenon; I mean,
you could have a child learn by heart a good encyclopedia and he or she
would know as much as or more than a school could offer. Dr. Hummer, do you
realize that for the modern pre-adolescent child, medieval dates are of less
vital value than weekend ones [twinkle]?–to repeat a pun that I heard the
Beardsley college psychoanalyst permit herself the other day. We live not
only in a world of thoughts, but also in a world of things. Wrds without
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experience are meaningless. What on earth can Dorothy Hummerson care for
Greece and the Orient with their harems and slaves?”
This program rather appalled me, but I spoke to two intelligent ladies
who had been connected with the school, and they affirmed that the girls did
quite a bit of sound reading and that the “communication” line was more or
less ballyhoo aimed at giving old-fashioned Beardsley School a financially
remunerative modern touch, though actually it remained as prim as a prawn.
Another reason attracting me to that particular school may seem funny
to some readers, but it was very important to me, for that is the way I am
made. Across our street, exactly in front of our house, there was, I
noticed, a gap of weedy wasteland, with some colorful bushes and a pile of
bricks and a few scattered planks, and the foam of shabby mauve and chrome
autumn roadside flowers; and through that gap you could see a shimmery
section of School Rd., running parallel to our Thayer St., and immediately
beyond that, the playground of the school Apart from the psychological
comfort this general arrangement should afford me by keeping Dolly’s day
adjacent to mine, I immediately foresaw the pleasure I would have in
distinguishing from my study-bedroom, by means of powerful binoculars, the
statistically inevitable percentage of nymphets among the other girl
children playing around Dolly during recess; unfortunately, on the very
first day of school, workmen arrived and put up a fence some way down the
gap, and in no time a construction of tawny wood maliciously arose beyond
that fence utterly blocking my magic vista; and as soon as they had erected
a sufficient amount of material to spoil everything, those absurd builders
suspended their work and never appeared again.
5
In a street called Thayer Street, in the residential green, fawn, and
golden of a mellow academic townlet, one was bound to have a few amiable
fine-dayers yelping at you. I prided myself on the exact temperature of my
relations with them: never rude, always aloof. My west-door neighbor, who
might have been a businessman or a college teacher, or both, would speak to
me once in a while as he barbered some late garden blooms or watered his
car, or, at a later date, defrosted his driveway (I don’t mind if these
verbs are all wrong), but my brief grunts, just sufficiently articulate to
sound like conventional assents or interrogative pause-fillers, precluded
any evolution toward chumminess. Of the two houses flanking the bit of
scrubby waste opposite, one was closed, and the other contained two
professors of English, tweedy and short-haired Miss Lester and fadedly
feminine Miss Fabian, whose only subject of brief sidewalk conversation with
me was (God bless their tact!) the young loveliness of my daughter and the
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naîve charm of Gaston Godin. My east-door neighbor was by far the most
dangerous one, a sharp-nosed stock character whose late brother had been
attached to the College as Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds. I
remember her waylaying Dolly, while I stood at the living room window,
feverishly awaiting my darling’s return from school. The odious spinster,
trying to conceal her morbid inquisitiveness under a mask of dulcet
goodwill, stood leaning on her slim umbrella (the sleet had just stopped, a
cold wet sun had sidled out), and Dolly, her brown coat open despite the raw
weather, her structural heap of books pressed against her stomach, her knees
showing pink above her clumsy wellingtons, a sheepish frightened little
smile flitting over and off her snub-nosed face, which–owing perhaps to the
pale wintry light–looked almost plain, in a rustic, German,
mägdlein-like way, as she stood there and dealt with Miss East’s
questions “And where is your mother, my dear? And what is your poor father’s
occupation? And where did you love before?” Another time the loathsome
creature accosted me with a welcoming whine–but I evaded her; and a few
days later there came from her a note in a blue-margined envelope, a nice
mixture of poison and treacle, suggesting Dolly come over on a Sunday and
curl up in a chair to look through the “loads of beautiful books my dear
mother gave me when I was a child, instead of having the radio on at full
blast till all hours of the night.”
I had also to be careful in regard to a Mrs. Holigan, a charwoman and
cook of sorts whom I had inherited with the vacuum cleaner from the previous
tenants. Dolly got lunch at school, so that this was no trouble, and I had
become adept at providing her with a big breakfast and warming up the dinner
that Mrs. Holigan prepared before leaving. That kindly and harmless woman
had, thank God, a rather bleary eye that missed details, and I had become a
great expert in bedmaking; but still I was continuously obsessed by the
feeling that some fatal stain had been left somewhere, or that, on the rare
occasions where Holigan’s presence happened to coincide with Lo’s, simple Lo
might succumb to buxom sympathy in the course of a cozy kitchen chat. I
often felt we lived in a lighted house of glass, and any moment some
thin-lipped parchment face would peer through a carelessly unshaded window
to obtain a free glimpse of things that the most jaded voyeur would
have paid a small fortune to watch.
6
A word about Gaston Godin. The main reason why I enjoyed–or at least
tolerated with relief–his company was the spell of absolute security that
his ample person cast on my secret. Not that he knew it; I had no special
reason to confide in him, and he was much too self-centered and abstract to
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notice or suspect anything that might lead to a frank question on his part
and a frank answer on mine. He spoke well of me to Beardsleyans, he was my
good herald. Had he discovered mes goøts and Lolita’s status, it
would have interested him only insofar as throwing some light on the
simplicity of my attitude towards him, which attitude was as free of
polite strain as it was of ribald allusions; for despite his colorless mind
and dim memory, he was perhaps aware that I knew more about him than the
burghers of Beardsley did. He was a flabby, dough-faced, melancholy bachelor
tapering upward to a pair of narrow, not quite level shoulders and a conical
pear-head which had sleek black hair on one side and only a few plastered
wisps on the other. But the lower part of his body was enormous, and he
ambulated with a curious elephantine stealth by means of phenomenally stout
legs. He always wore black, even his tie was black; he seldom bathed; his
English was a burlesque. And, nonetheless, everybody considered him to be a
supremely lovable, lovably freakish fellow! Neighbors pampered him; he knew
by name all the small boys in our vicinity (he lived a few blocks away from
me)and had some of them clean his sidewalk and burn leaves in his back yard,
and bring wood from his shed, and even perform simple chores about the
house, and he would feed them fancy chocolates, with real liqueurs
inside–in the privacy of an orientally furnished den in his basement, with
amusing daggers and pistols arrayed on the moldy, rug-adorned walls among
the camouflaged hot-water pipes. Upstairs he had a studio–he painted a
little, the old fraud. He had decorated its sloping wall (it was really not
more than a garret) with large photographs of pensive Andrè Gide,
Tchaîkovsky, Norman Douglas, two other well-known English writers, Nijinsky
(all thighs and fig leaves), Harold D. Doublename (a misty-eyed left-wing
professor at a Midwesten university) and Marcel Proust. All these poor
people seemed about to fall on you from their inclined plane. He had also an
album with snapshots of all the Jackies and Dickies of the neighborhood, and
when I happened to thumb through it and make some casual remark, Gaston
would purse his fat lips and murmur with a wistful pout “Oui, ils sont
gentils.” His brown eyes would roam around the various sentimental and
artistic bric-a-brac present, and his own banal toiles (the
conventionally primitive eyes, sliced guitars, blue nipples and geometrical
designs of the day), and with a vague gesture toward a painted wooden bowl
or veined vase, he would say “Prenez donc une de ces poires. La bonne
dame d’en face m’en offre plus que je n’en peux savourer.” Or:
“Mississe Taille Lore vient de me donner ces dahlias, belles fleurs que
j’exõcre.” (Somber, sad, full of world-weariness.)
For obvious reasons, I preferred myhouse to his for the games of chess
we had two or three times weekly. He looked like some old battered idol as
he sat with his pudgy hands in his lap and stared at the board as if it were
a corpse. Wheezing he would mediate for ten minutes–then make a losing
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move. Or the good man, after even more thought, might utter: Au roi!
With a slow old-dog woof that had a gargling sound at the back of it which
made his jowls wabble; and then he would lift his circumflex eyebrows with a
deep sigh as I pointed out to him that he was in check himself.
Sometimes, from where we sat in my cold study I could hear Lo’s bare
feet practicing dance techniques in the living room downstairs; but Gaston’s
outgoing senses were comfortably dulled, and he remained unaware of those
naked rhythms–and-one, and-two, and-one, and-two, weight transferred on a
straight right leg, leg up and out to the side, and-one, and-two, and only
when she started jumping, opening her legs at the height of the jump, and
flexing one leg, and extending the other, and flying, and landing on her
toes–only then did my pale, pompous, morose opponent rub his head or cheek
a if confusing those distant thuds with the awful stabs of my formidable
Queen.
Sometimes Lola would slouch in while we pondered the board–and it was
every time a treat to see Gaston, his elephant eye still fixed on his
pieces, ceremoniously rise to shake hands with her, and forthwith release
her limp fingers, and without looking once at her, descend again into his
chair to topple into the trap I had laid for him. One day around Christmas,
after I had not seen him for a fortnight or so, he asked me “Et toutes
vos fillettes, elles vont bien?” from which it became evident to
me that he had multiplied my unique Lolita by the number of sartorial
categories his downcast moody eye had glimpsed during a whole series of her
appearances: blue jeans, a skirt, shorts, a quilted robe.
I am loath to dwell so long on the poor fellow (sadly enough, a year
later, during a voyage to Europe, from which he did not return, he got
involved in a sale histoire, in Napes of all places!). I would have
hardly alluded to him at all had not his Beardsley existence had such a
queer bearing on my case. I need him for my defense. There he was devoid of
any talent whatsoever, a mediocre teacher, a worthless scholar, a glum
repulsive fat old invert, highly contemptuous of the American way of life,
triumphantly ignorant of the English language–there he was in priggish New
England, crooned over by the old and caressed by the young–oh, having a
grand time and fooling everybody; and here was I.
7
I am now faced with the distasteful task of recording a definite drop
in Lolita’s morals. If her share in the ardors she kindled had never
amounted to much, neither had pure lucre ever come to the fore. But I was
weak, I was not wise, my school-girl nymphet had me in thrall. With the
human element dwindling, the passion, the tenderness, and the torture only
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increased; and of this she took advantage.
Her weekly allowance, paid to her under condition she fulfill her basic
obligations, was twenty-one cents at the start of the Beardsley era–and
went up to one dollar five before its end. This was a more than generous
arrangement seeing she constantly received from me all kinds of small
presents and had for the asking any sweetmeat or movie under the
moon–although, of course, I might fondly demand an additional kiss, or even
a whole collection of assorted caresses, when I knew she coveted very badly
some item of juvenile amusement. She was, however, not easy to deal with.
Only very listlessly did she earn her three pennies–or three nickels–per
day; and she proved to be a cruel negotiator whenever it was in her power to
deny me certain life-wrecking, strange, slow paradisal philters without
which I could not live more than a few days in a row, and which, because of
the very nature of love’s languor, I could not obtain by force. Knowing the
magic and might of her own soft mouth, she managed–during one
schoolyear!–to raise the bonus price of a fancy embrace to three, and even
four bucks! O Reader! Laugh not, as you imagine me, on the very rack of joy
noisily emitting dimes and quarters, and great big silver dollars like some
sonorous, jingly and wholly demented machine vomiting riches; and in the
margin of that leaping epilepsy she would firmly clutch a handful of coins
in her little fist, which, anyway, I used to pry open afterwards unless she
gave me the slip, scrambling away to hide her loot. And just as every other
day I would cruise all around the school area and on comatose feet visit
drugstores, and peer into foggy lanes, and listen to receding girl laughter
in between my heart throbs and the falling leaves, so every now and then I
would burgle her room and scrutinize torn papers in the wastebasket with the
painted roses, and look under the pillow of the virginal bed I had just made
myself. Once I found eight one-dollar notes in one of her books
(fittingly–Treasure Island), and once a hole in the wall behind
Whistler’s Mother yielded as much as twenty-four dollars and some
change–say twenty-four sixty–which I quietly removed, upon which, next
day, she accused, to my face, honest Mrs. Holigan of being a filthy thief.
Eventually, she lived up to her I.Q. by finding a safer hoarding place which
I never discovered; but by that time I had brought prices down drastically
by having her earn the hard and nauseous way permission to participate in
the school’s theatrical program; because what I feared most was not that she
might ruin me, but that she might accumulate sufficient cash to run away. I
believe the poor fierce-eyed child had figured out that with a mere fifty
dollars in her purse she might somehow reach Broadway or Hollywood–or the
foul kitchen of a diner (Help Wanted) in a dismal ex-prairie state, with the
wind blowing, and the stars blinking, and the cars, and the bars, and the
barmen, and everything soiled, torn, dead.
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8
I did my best, your Honor, to tackele the problem of boys. Oh, I used
even to read in the Beardsley Star a so-called Column for Teens, to find out
how to behave!
A word to fathers. Don’t frighten away daughter’s friend. Maybe it
is a bit hard for you to realize that now the boys are finding her
attractive. To you she is still a little girl. To the boys she’s charming
and fun, lovely and gay. They like her. Today you clinch big deals in an
executive’s office, but yesterday you were just highschool Jim carrying
Jane’s school books. Remember? Don’t you want your daughter, now that her
turn has come, to be happy in the admiration and company of boys she likes?
Don’t you want your daughter, now that her turn has come, to be happy in the
admiration and company of boys she likes? Don’t you want them to have
wholesome fun together?
Wholesome fun? Good Lord!
Why not treat the young fellows as guests in your house? Why not
make conversation with them? Draw them out, make them laugh and feel at
ease?
Welcome, fellow, to this bordello.
If she breaks the rules don’t explode out loud in front of her
partner in crime. Let her take the brunt of your displeasure in private. And
stop making the boys feel she’s the daughter of an old ogre.
First of all the old ogre drew up a list under “absolutely forbidden”
and another under “reluctantly allowed.” Absolutely forbidden were dates,
single or double or triple–the next step being of course mass orgy. She
might visit a candy bar with her girl friends, and there giggle-chat with
occasional young males, while I waited in the car at a discreet distance;
and I promised her that if her group were invited by a socially acceptable
group in Butler’s Academy for Bo[ys for their annual ball (heavily
chaperoned, of course), I might consider the question whether a girl of
fourteen can don her first “formal” (a kind of gown that makes thin-armed
teen-agers look like flamingoes). Moreover, I promised her to throw a party
a t our house to which she would be allowed to invite her prettier girl
friends and the nicer boys she would have met by that time at the Butler
dance. But I was quite positive that as long as my regime lasted she would
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never, never be permitted to go with a youngster in rut to a movie, or neck
in a car, or go to boy-girl parties at the houses of schoolmates, or indulge
out of my earshot in boy-girl telephone conversations, even if “only
discussing his relations with a friend of mine.”
Lo was enraged by all this–called me a lousy crook and worse–and I
would probably have lost my temper had I not soon discovered, to my sweetest
relief, that what really angered her was my depriving her not of a specific
satisfaction but of a general right. I was impinging, you see, on the
conventional program, the stock pastimes, the “things that are done,” the
routine of youth; for there is nothing more conservative than a child,
especially a girl-child, be she the most auburn and russet, the most
mythopoeic nymphet in October’s orchard-haze.
Do not misunderstand me. I cannot be absolutely certain that in the
course of the winter she did not manage to have, in a casual way, improper
contacts with unknown young fellows; of course, no matter how closely I
controlled her leisure, there would constantly occur unaccounted-for time
leaks with over-elaborate explanations to stop them up in retrospect; of
course, my jealousy would constantly catch its jagged claw in the fine
fabrics of nymphet falsity; but I did definitely feel–and can now vouchsafe
for the accuracy of my feeling–that there was no reason for serious alarm.
I felt that way not because I never once discovered any palpable hard young
throat to crush among the masculine mutes that flickered somewhere in the
background; but because it was to me “overwhelmingly obvious” (a favorite
expression with my aunt Sybil) that all varieties of high school boys–from
the perspiring nincompoop whom “holding hands” thrills, to the
self-sufficient rapist with pustules and a souped-up car–equally bored my
sophisticated young mistress. “All this noise about boys gags me,” she had
scrawled on the inside of a schoolbook, and underneath, in Mona’s hand (Mona
is due any minute now), there was the sly quip: “What about Rigger?” (due
too).
Faceless, then, are the chappies I happened to see in her company.
There was for instance Red Sweater who one day, the day we had the first
snow–saw her home; from the parlor window I observed them talking near our
porch. She wre her first cloth coat with a fur collar; there was a small
brown cap on my favorite hairdo–the fringe in front and the swirl at the
sides and the natural curls at the back–and her damp-dark moccasins and
white socks were more sloppy than ever. She pressed as usual her books to
her chest while speaking or listening, and her feet gestured all the time:
she would stand on her left instep with her right toe, remove it backward,
cross her feet, rock slightly, sketch a few steps, and then start the series
all over again. There was Windbreaker who talked to her in front of a
restaurant one Sunday afternoon while his mother and sister attempted to
walk me away for a chat; I dragged along and looked back at my only love.
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She had developed more than one conventional mannerism, such as the polite
adolescent way of showing one is literally “doubled up” with laughter by
inclining one’s head, and so (as she sensed my call), still feigning helpless
merriment, she walked backward a couple of steps, and then faced about, and
walked toward me with a fading smile. On the other hand, I greatly
liked–perhaps because it reminded me of her first unforgettable
confession–her trick of sighing “oh dear!” in humorous wistful submission
to fate, or emitting a long “no-o” in a deep almost growling undertone when
the blow of fate had actually fallen. Above all–since we are speaking of
movement and youth–I liked to see her spinning up and down Thayer Street on
her beautiful young bicycle: rising on the pedals to work on them lustily,
then sinking back in a languid posture while the speed wore itself off; and
then she would stop at our mailbox and, still astride, would flip through a
magazine she found there, and put it back, and press her tongue to one side
of her upper lip and push off with her foot, and again sprint through pale
shade and sun.
On the whole she seemed to me better adapted to her surroundings than I
had hoped she would be when considering my spoiled slave-child and the
bangles of demeanor she naîvely affected the winter before in california.
Although I could never get used to the constant state of anxiety in which
the guilty, the great, the tenderhearted live, I felt I was doing my best in
the way of mimicry. As I lay on my narrow studio bed after a session of
adoration and despair in Lolita’s cold bedroom, I used to review the
concluded day by checking my own image as it prowled rather than passed
before the mind’s red eye. I watched dark-and-handsome, not un-Celtic,
probably high-church, possibly very high-church, Dr. Humbert see his
daughter off to school I watched him greet with his slow smile and
pleasantly arched thick black ad-eyebrows good Mrs. Holigan, who smelled of
the plague (and would head, I knew, for master’s gin at the first
opportunity). With Mr. West, retired executioner or writer of religious
tracts–who cared?–I saw neighbor what’s his name, I think they are French
or Swiss, meditate in his frank-windowed study over a typewriter, rather
gaunt-profiled, an almost Hitlerian cowlick on his pale brow. Weekends,
wearing a well-tailored overcoat and brown gloves, Professor H. might be
seen with his daughter strolling to Walton Inn (famous for its
violet-ribboned china bunnies and chocolate boxes among which you sit and
wait for a “table for two” still filthy with your predecessor’s crumbs).
Seen on weekdays, around one p.m. , saluting with dignity Argus-eyed East
while maneuvering the car out of the garage and around the damned
evergreens, and down onto the slippery road. Raising a cold eye from book to
clock in the positively sultry Beardsley College library, among bulky young
women caught and petrified in the overflow of human knowledge. Walking
across the campus with the college clergyman, the Rev. Rigger (who also
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taught Bible in Beardsley School). “Somebody told me her mother was a
celebrated actress killed in an airplane accident. Oh? My mistake, I
presume. Is that so? I see. How sad.” (Sublimating her mother, eh?) Slowly
pushing my little pram through the labyrinth of the supermarket, in the wake
of Professor W., also a slow-moving and gentle widower with the eyes of a
goat. Shoveling the snow in my shirt-sleeves, a voluminous black and white
muffler around my neck. Following with no show of rapacious haste (even
taking time to wipe my feet on the mat) my school-girl daughter into the
house. Taking Dolly to the dentist–pretty nurse beaming at her–old
magazines–ne montrez pas vos zhambes. At dinner with Dolly in town,
Mr. Edgar H. Humbert was seen eating his steak in the continental
knife-and-fork manner. Enjoying, in duplicate, a concert: two marble-faced,
becalmed Frenchmen sitting side by side, with Monsieur H. H.’s musical
little girl on her father’s right, and the musical little boy of Professor
W. (father spending a hygienic evening in Providence) on Monsieur G. G.’s
left. Opening the garage, a square of light that engulfs the car and is
extinguished. Brightly pajamaed, jerking down the window shade in Dolly’s
bedroom. Saturday morning, unseen, solemnly weighing the winter-bleached
lassie in the bathroom. Seen and heard Sunday morning, no churchgoer after
all, saying don’t be too late, to Dolly who is bound for the covered court.
Letting in a queerly observant schoolmate of Dolly’s: “First time I’ve seen
a man wearing a smoking jacket, sir–except in movies, of course.”
9
Her girlfriends, whom I looked forward to meet, proved on the whole
disappointing. There was Opal Something, and Linda Hall, and Avis Chapman,
and Eva Rosen, and Mona Dahl (save one, all these names are approximations,
of course). Opal was a bashful, formless, bespectacled, bepimpled creature
who doted on Dolly who bullied her. With Linda Hall the school tennis
champion, Dolly played singles at least twice a week: I suspect Linda was a
true nymphet, but for some unknown reason she did not come–was perhaps not
allowed to come–to our house; so I recall her only as a flash of natural
sunshine on an indoor court. Of the rest, none had any claims to nymphetry
except Eva Rosen. Avis ws a plump lateral child with hairy legs, while Mona,
though handsome in a coarse sensual way and only a year older than my aging
mistress, had obviously long ceased to be a nymphet, if she ever had been
one. Eva Rosen, a displaced little person from France, was on the other hand
a good example of a not strikingly beautiful child revealing to the
perspicacious amateur some of the basic elements of nymphet charm, such as a
perfect pubescent figure and lingering eyes and high cheekbones. Her glossy
copper hair had Lolita’s silkiness, and the features of her delicate
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milky-white face with pink lips and silverfish eyelashes were less foxy than
those of her likes–the great clan of intra-racial redheads; nor did she
sport their green uniform but wore, as I remember her, a lot of black or
cherry dark–a very smart black pullover, for instance, and high-heeled
black shoes, and garnet-red fingernail polish. I spoke French to her (much
to Lo’s disgust). The child’s tonalities were still admirably pure, but for
school words and play words she resorted to current American and then a
slight Brooklyn accent would crop up in her speech, which was amusing in a
little Parisian who went to a select New England school with phoney British
aspirations. Unfortunately, despite “that French kid’s uncle” being “a
millionaire,” Lo dropped Eva for some reason before I had had time to enjoy
in my modest way her fragrant presence in the Humbert open house. The reader
knows what importance I attached to having a bevy of page girls, consolation
prize nymphets, around my Lolita. For a while, I endeavored to interest my
senses in Mona Dahl who was a good deal around, especially during the spring
term when Lo and she got so enthusiastic about dramatics. I have often
wondered what secrets outrageously treacherous Dolores Haze had imparted to
Mona while blurting out to me by urgent and well-paid request various really
incredible details concerning an affair that Mona had had with a marine at
the seaside. It was characteristic of Lo that she chose for her closest chum
that elegant, cold, lascivious, experienced young female whom I once heard
(misheard, Lo swore) cheerfully say in the hallway to Lo–who had remarked
that her (Lo’s) sweater was of virgin wool: “The only thing about you that
is, kiddo . . .” She had a curiously husky voice, artificially waved dull
dark hair, earrings, amber-brown prominent eyes and luscious lips. Lo said
teachers had remonstrated with her on her loading herself with so much
costume jewelry. Her hands trembled. She was burdened with a 150 I.Q. And I
also knew she had a tremendous chocolate-brown mole on he womanish back
which I inspected the night Lo and she had worn low-cut pastel-colored,
vaporous dresses for a dance at the Butler Academy.
I am anticipating a little, but I cannot help running my memory all
over the keyboard of that school year. In the meeting my attempts to find
out what kind of boys Lo knew, Miss Dahl was elegantly evasive. Lo who had
gone to play tennis at Linda’s country club had telephoned she might be a
full half hour late, and so, would I entertain Mona who was coming to
practice with her a scene from The Taming of the Shrew. Using all the
modulations, all the allure of manner and voice she was capable of and
staring at me with perhaps–could I be mistaken?–a faint gleam of
crystalline irony, beautiful Mona replied: “Well, sir, the fact is Dolly is
not much concerned with mere boys. Fact is, we are rivals. She and I have a
crush on the Reverend Rigger.” (This was a joke–I have already mentioned
that gloomy giant of a man, with the jaw of a horse: he was to bore me to
near murder with his impressions of Switzerland at a tea party for parents
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that I am unable to place correctly in terms of time.)
How had the ball been? Oh, it had been a riot. A what? A panic.
Terrific, in a word. Had Lo danced a lot? Oh, not a frightful lot, just as
much as she could stand. What did she, languorous Mona, think of Lo? Sir?
Did she think Lo was doing well at school? Gosh, she certainly was quite a
kid. But her general behavior was–? Oh, she was a swell kid. But still?
“Oh, she’s a doll,” concluded Mona, and sighed abruptly, and picked up a
book that happened to lie at hand, and with a change of expression, falsely
furrowing her brow, inquired: “Do tell me about Ball Zack, sir. Is he really
that good?” She moved up so close to my chair that I made out through
lotions and creams her uninteresting skin scent. A sudden odd thought
stabbed me: was my Lo playing the pimp? If so, she had found the wrong
substitute. Avoiding Mona” cool gaze, I talked literature for a minute.
Then Dolly arrived–and slit her pale eyes at us. I left the two friends to
their own devices. One of the latticed squares in a small cobwebby casement
window at the turn of the staircase was glazed with ruby, and that raw wound
among the unstained rectangles and its asymmetrical position–a night’s move
from the top–always strangely disturbed me.
10
Sometimes . . . Come on, how often exactly, Bert? Can you recall four,
five, more such occasions? Or would no human heart have survived two or
three? Sometimes (I have nothing to say in reply to your question), while
Lolita would be haphazardly preparing her homework, sucking a pencil,
lolling sideways in an easy chair with both legs over its arm, I would shed
all my pedagogic restraint, dismiss all our quarrels, forget all my
masculine pride–and literally crawl on my knees to your chair, my Lolita!
You would give me one look–a gray furry question mark of a look: “Oh no,
not again” (incredulity, exasperation); for you never deigned to believe
that I could, without any specific designs, ever crave to bury my face in
your plaid skirt, my darling! The fragility of those bare arms of yours–how
I longed to enfold them, all your four limpid lovely limbs, a folded colt,
and take your head between my unworthy hands, and pull the temple-skin back
on both sides, and kiss your chinesed eyes, and–“Pulease, leave me alone,
will you,” you would say, “for Christ’s sake leave me alone.” And I would
get up from the floor while you looked on, your face deliberately twitching
in imitation of my tic nerveux. But never mind, never mind, I am only
a brute, never mind, let us go on with my miserable story.
11
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One Monday forenoon, in December I think, Pratt asked me to come over
for a talk. Dolly’s last report had been poor, I knew. But instead of
contenting myself with some such plausible explanation of this summons, I
imagined all sort of horrors, and had to fortify myself with a pint of my
“pin” before I could face the interview. Slowly, all Adam’s apple and heart,
I went up the steps of the scaffold.
A huge woman, gray-haired, drowsy, with a broad flat nose and small
eyes behind black-rimmed glasses–“Sit down,” she said, pointing to an
informal and humiliating hassock, while she perched with ponderous spryness
on the arm of an oak chair. For a moment or two, she peered at me with
smiling curiosity. She had done it at our first meeting, I recalled, but I
could afford then to scowl back. Her eye left me. She lapsed into
thought–probably assumed. Making up her mind she rubbed, fold on fold, her
dark gray flannel skirt at the knee, dispelling a trace of chalk or
something. Then she said, still rubbing, not looking up:
“Let me ask a blunt question, Mr. Haze. You are an old-fashioned
Continental father, aren’t you?”
“Why, no,” I said, “conservative, perhaps, but not what you would call
old-fashioned.”
She sighed, frowned, then clapped her big plump hands together in a
let’s-get-down-to-business manner, and again fixed her beady eyes upon me.
“Dolly Haze,” she said, “is a lovely child, but the onset of sexual
maturing seems to give her trouble.”
I bowed slightly. What else could I do?
“She is still shuttling,” said Miss Pratt, showing how with her
liver-spotted hands, “between the anal and genital zones of development.
Basically she is a lovely–”
“I beg your pardon,” I said, “what zones?”
“That’s the old-fashioned European in you!” cried Pratt delivering a
slight tap on my wrist watch and suddenly disclosing her dentures. “All I
mean is that biologic drives–do you smoke?–are not fused in Dolly, do not
fall so to speak into a–into a rounded pattern.” Her hands held for a
moment an invisible melon.
“She is attractive, bright though careless” (breathing heavily, without
leaving her perch, the woman took time out to look at the lovely child’s
report sheet on the desk at her right). “Her marks are getting worse and
worse. Now I wonder, Mr. Haze–” Again the false meditation.
“Well,” she went on with zest, “as for me, I do smoke, and, as dear Dr.
Pierce used to say: I’m not proud of it but I jeest love it.” She lit up and
the smoke she exhaled from her nostrils was like a pair of tusks.
“Let me give you a few details, it won’t take a moment. Now here let me
see [rummaging among her papers]. She is defiant toward Miss Redcock and
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impossibly rude to Miss Cormorant. Now here is one of our special research
reports: Enjoys singing with group in class though mind seems to wander.
Crosses her knees and wags left leg to rhythm. Type of by-words: a
two-hundred-forty-two word area of the commonest pubescent slang fenced in
by a number of obviously European polysyllabics. Sighs a good deal in class.
Let me see. Yes. Now comes the last week in November. Sighs a good deal in
class. Chews gum vehemently. Does not bite her nails though if she did, this
would conform better to her general pattern–scientifically speaking, of
course. Menstruation, according to the subject, well established. Belongs at
present to no church organization. By the way, Mr. Haze, her mother was–?
Oh, I see. And you are–? Nobody’s business is, I suppose, God’s business.
Something else we wanted to know. She was no regular home duties, I
understand. Making a princess of your Dolly, Mr. Haze, he? Well, what else
have we got here? Handles books gracefully. Voice pleasant. Giggles rather
often. A little dreamy. Has private jokes of her own, transposing for
instance the first letters of some of her teachers names. Hair light and
dark brown, lustrous–well [laughing] you are aware of that, I
suppose. Nose unobstructed, feet high-arched, eyes-let me see, I had here
somewhere a still more recent report. Aha, here we are. Miss Gold says
Dolly’s tennis form is excellent to superb, even better than Linda Hall’s,
but concentration and point-accumulation are just “poor to fair.” Miss
Cormorant cannot decide whether Dolly has exceptional emotional control or
none at all. Miss Horn reports she–I mean, Dolly–cannot verbalize her
emotions, while according to Miss Cole Dolly’s metabolic efficiency is
superfine. Miss Molar thinks Dolly is myopic and should see a good
ophthalmologist, but Miss Redcock insists that the girl simulates eye-strain
to get away with scholastic incompetence. And to conclude, Mr. Haze, our
researchers are wondering about something really crucial. Now I want to ask
you something. I want to know if your poor wife, or yourself, or anyone else
in the family–I understand she has several aunts and a maternal grandfather
in California?–oh, had!–I’m sorry–well, we all wonder if anybody
in the family has instructed Dolly in the process of mammalian reproduction.
The general impression is that fifteen-year-old Dolly remains morbidly
uninterested in sexual matters, or to be exact, represses her curiosity in
order to save her ignorance and self-dignity. All right-fourteen. You see,
Mr. Haze, Beardsley School does not believe in bees and blossoms, and storks
and love birds, but it does believe very strongly in preparing its students
for mutually satisfactory mating and successful child rearing. We feel Dolly
could make excellent progress if only she would put her mind to her work.
Miss Cormorant’s report is significant in that respect. Dolly is inclined to
be, mildly speaking impudent. But all feel that primo, you should
have your family doctor tell her the facts of life and, secundo, that
you allow her to enjoy the company of her schoolmates’ brothers at the
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Junior Club or in Dr. Rigger’s organization, or in the lovely homes of our
parents.”
“She may meet boys at her own lovely home,” I said.
“I hope she will,” said Pratt buoyantly. “When we questioned her about
her troubles, Dolly refused to discuss the home situation, but we have
spoken to some of her friends and really–well, for example, we insist you
un-veto her nonparticiaption in the dramatic group. You just must allow her
to take part in The Hunted Enchanters. She was such a perfect little
nymph in the try-out, and sometime in spring the author will stay for a few
days at Beardsley College and may attend a rehearsal or two in our new
auditorium. I mean it is all part of the fun of being young and alive and
beautiful. You must understand–”
“I always thought of myself,” I said, “as a very understanding father.”
“Oh, no doubt, no doubt, but Miss Cormorant thinks, and I am inclined
to agree with her, that Dolly is obsessed by sexual thoughts for which she
finds no outlet, and will tease and martyrize other girls, or even our
younger instructors because they do have innocent dates with boys.”
Shrugged my shoulders. A shabby èmigrè.
“Let us put our two heads together, Mr. Haze. What on earth is wrong
with that child?”
“She seems quite normal and happy to me,” I said (disaster coming at
last? Was I found out? Had they got some hypnotist?).
“What worries me,” said Miss Pratt looking at her watch and starting to
go over the whole subject again, “is that both teachers and schoolmates find
Dolly antagonistic, dissatisfied, cagey–and everybody wonders why you are
so firmly opposed to all the natural recreations of a normal child.”
“Do you mean sex play?” I asked jauntily, in despair, a cornered old
rat.
“Well, I certainly welcome this civilized terminology,” said Pratt with
a grin. “But this is not quite the point. Under the auspices of Beardsley
School, dramatics, dances and other natural activities are not technically
sex play, though girls do meet boys, if that is what you object to.”
“All right,” I said, my hassock exhaling a weary sign. “You win. She
can take part in that play. Provided male parts are taken by female parts.”
“I am always fascinated,” said Pratt, “by the admirable way
foreigners–or at least naturalized Americans–use our rich language. I’m
sure Miss Gold, who conducts the play group, will be overjoyed. I notice she
is one of the few teachers that seem to like–I mean who seem to find Dolly
manageable. This takes care of general topics, I guess; now comes a special
matter. We are in trouble again.”
Pratt paused truculently, then rubbed her index finger under her
nostrils with such vigor that her nose performed a kind of war dance.
“I’m a frank person,” she said, “but conventions are conventions, and I
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find it difficult . . . Let me put it this way . . . The Walkers, who live
in what we call around here the Duke’s Manor, you know the great gray house
on the hill–they send their two girls to our school, and we have the niece
of President Moore with us, a really gracious child, not to speak of a
number of other prominent children. Well, under the circumstances, it is
rather a jolt when Dolly, who looks like a little lady, uses words which you
as a foreigner probably simply do not know or do not understand. Perhaps it
might be better–Would you like me to have Dolly come up here right away to
discuss things? No? You see–oh well, let’s have it out. Dolly has written a
most obscene four-letter word which our Dr. Cutler tells me is low-Mexican
for urinal with her lipstick on some health pamphlets which Miss Redcock,
who is getting married in June, distributed among the girls, and we thought
she should stay after hours–another half hour at least. But if you like–”
“No,” I said, “I don’t want to interfere with rules. I shall talk to
her later. I shall thrash it out.”
“Do,” said the woman rising from her chair arm. “And perhaps we can get
together again soon, and if things do not improve we might have Dr. Cutler
analyze her.”
Should I marry Pratt and strangle her?
“. . .And perhaps your family doctor might like to examine her
physically–just a routine check-up. She is in Mushroom–the last classroom
along that passage.”
Beardsley School, it may be explained, copied a famous girls school in
England by having “traditional” nicknames for its various classrooms:
Mushroom, Room-In 8, B-Room, Room-BA and so on. Mushroom was smelly, with a
sepia print of Reynolds’ “Age of Innocence” above the chalkboard, and
several rows of clumsy-looking pupil desks. At one of these, my Lolita was
reading the chapter on “Dialogue” in Baker’s Dramatic Technique, and
all was very quiet, and there was another girl with a very naked,
porcelain-white neck and wonderful platinum hair, who sat in front reading
too, absolutely lost to the world and interminably winding a soft curl
around one finger, and I sat beside Dolly just behind that neck and that
hair, and unbuttoned my overcoat and for sixty-five cents plus the
permission to participate in the school play, had Dolly put her inky,
chalky, red-knuckled hand under the desk. Oh, stupid and reckless of me, no
doubt, but after the torture I had been subjected to, I simply had to take
advantage of a combination that I knew would never occur again.
12
Around Christmas she caught a bad chill and was examined by a friend of
Miss Lester, a Dr. Ilse Tristramson (hi, Ilse, you were a dear,
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uninquisitive soul, and you touched my dove very gently). She diagnosed
bronchitis, patted Lo on the back (all its bloom erect because of the fever)
and put her to bed for a week or longer. At first she “ran a temperature” in
American parlance, and I could not resist the exquisite caloricity of
unexpected delights–Venus febriculosa–though it was a very languid Lolita
that moaned and coughed and shivered in my embrace. And as soon as she was
well again, I threw a Party with Boys.
Perhaps I had drunk a little too much in preparation for the ordeal.
Perhaps I made a fool of myself. The girls had decorated and plugged in a
small fir tree–German custom, except that colored bulbs had superseded wax
candles. Records were chosen and fed into my landlord’s phonograph. Chic
Dolly wore a nice gray dress with fitted bodice and flared skirt. Humming, I
retired to my study upstairs–and then every ten or twenty minutes I would
come down like an idiot just for a few seconds; to pick up ostensibly my
pipe from the mantelpiece or hunt for the newspaper; and with every new
visit these simple actions became harder to perform, and I was reminded of
the dreadfully distant days when I used to brace myself to casually enter a
room in the Ramsdale house where Little Carmen was on.
The party was not a success. Of the three girls invited, one did not
come at all, and one of the boys brought his cousin Roy, so there was a
superfluity of two boys, and the cousins knew all the steps, and the other
fellows could hardly dance at all, and most of the evening was spent in
messing up the kitchen, and then endlessly jabbering about what card game to
play, and sometime later, two girls and four boys sat on the floor of the
living room, with all windows open, and played a word game which Opal could
not be made to understand, while Mona and Roy, a lean handsome lad, drank
ginger ale in the kitchen, sitting on the table and dangling their legs, and
hotly discussing Predestination and the Law of Averages. After they had all
gone my Lo said ugh, closed her eyes, and dropped into a chair with all four
limbs starfished to express the utmost disgust and exhaustion and swore it
was the most revolting bunch of boys she had ever seen. I bought her a new
tennis racket for that remark.
January was humid and warm, and February fooled the forsythia: none of
the townspeople had ever seen such weather. Other presents came
tumbling in. For her birthday I bought her a bicycle, the doe-like and
altogether charming machine already mentioned–and added to this a
History of Modern American Painting: her bicycle manner, I mean her
approach to it, the hip movement in mounting, the grace and so on, afforded
me supreme pleasure; but my attempt to refine her pictorial taste was a
failure; she wanted to know if the guy noon-napping on Doris Lee’s hay was
the father of the pseudo-voluptuous hoyden in the foreground, and could not
understand why I said Grant Wood or Peter Hurd was good, and Reginald Marsh
or Frederick Waugh awful.
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13
By the time spring had touched up Thayer Street with yellow and green
and pink, Lolita was irrevocably stage-struck. Pratt, whom I chanced to
notice one Sunday lunching with some people at Walton Inn, caught my eye
from afar and went through the motion of sympathetically and discreetly
clapping her hands while Lo was not looking. I detest the theatre as being a
primitive and putrid form, historically speaking; a form that smacks of
stone-age rites and communal nonsense despite those individual injections of
genius, such as, say, Elizabethan poetry which a closeted reader
automatically pumps out of the stuff. Being much occupied at the time with
my own literary labors, I did not bother to read the complete text of The
Enchanted Hunters, the playlet in which Dolores Haze was assigned the
part of a farmer’s daughter who imagines herself to be a woodland witch, or
Diana, or something, and who, having got hold of a book on hypnotism,
plunges a number of lost hunters into various entertaining trances before
falling in her turn under the spell of a vagabond poet (Mona Dahl). That
much I gleaned from bits of crumpled and poorly typed script that Lo sowed
all over the house. The coincidence of the title with the name of an
unforgettable inn was pleasant in a sad little way: I wearily thought I had
better not bring it to my own enchantress’s notice, lest a brazen accusation
of mawkishness hurt me even more than her failure to notice it for herself
had done. I assumed the playlet was just another, practically anonymous,
version of some banal legend. Nothing prevented one, of course, from
supposing that in quest of an attractive name the founder of the hotel had
been immediately and solely influenced by the chance fantasy of the
second-rate muralist he had hired, and that subsequently the hotel’s name
had suggested the play’s title. But in my credulous, simple, benevolent mind
I happened to twist it the other way round, and without giving the whole
matter much though really, supposed that mural, name and title had all been
derived from a common source, from some local tradition, which I, an alien
unversed in New England lore, would not be supposed to know. In consequence
I was under the impression (all this quite casually, you understand, quite
outside my orbit of importance) that the accursed playlet belonged to the
type of whimsy for juvenile consumption, arranged and rearranged many times,
such as Hansel and Gretel by Richard Roe, or The Sleeping
Beauty by Dorothy Doe, or The Emperor’s New Clothes by Maurice
Vermont and Marion Rumpelmeyer–all this to be found in any Plays for
School Actors or Let’s Have a Play! In other words, I did not
know–and would not have cared, if I did –that actually The Enchanted
Hunters was a quite recent and technically original composition which
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had been produced for the first time only three or four months ago by a
highbrow group in New York. To me–inasmuch as I could judge from my
charmer’s part–it seemed to be a pretty dismal kind of fancy work, with
echoes from Lenormand and Maeterlinck and various quiet British dreamers.
The red-capped, uniformly attired hunters, of which one was a banker,
another a plumber, a third a policeman, a fourth an undertaker, a fifth an
underwriter, a sixth an escaped convict (you see the possibilities!), went
through a complete change of mind in Dolly’s Dell, and remembered their real
lives only as dreams or nightmares from which little Diana had aroused them;
but a seventh Hunter (in a green cap, the fool) was a Young Poet, and
he insisted, much to Diana’s annoyance, that she and the entertainment
provided (dancing nymphs, and elves, and monsters) were his, the Poet’s,
invention. I understand that finally, in utter disgust at his cocksureness,
barefooted Dolores was to lead check-trousered Mona to the paternal farm
behind the Perilous Forest to prove to the braggart she was not a poet’s
fancy, but a rustic, down-to-brown-earth lass–and a last-minute kiss was to
enforce the play’s profound message, namely, that mirage and reality merge
in love. I considered it wiser not to criticize the thing in front of Lo:
she was so healthily engrossed in “problems of expression,” and so
charmingly did she put her narrow Florentine hands together, batting her
eyelashes and pleading with me not to come to rehearsals as some ridiculous
parents did because she wanted to dazzle me with a perfect First Night–and
because I was, anyway, always butting in and saying the wrong thing, and
cramping her style in the presence of other people.
There was one very special rehearsal . . . my heart, my heart . . .
there was one day in May marked by a lot of gay flurry–it all rolled past,
beyond my ken, immune to my memory, and when I saw Lo next, in the late
afternoon, balancing on her bike, pressing the palm of her hand to the damp
bark of a young birch tree on the edge of our lawn, I was so struck by the
radiant tenderness of her smile that for an instant I believed all our
troubles gone. “Can you remember,” she said, “what was the name of that
hotel, you know [nose pucketed], come on, you know–with those white
columns and the marble swan in the lobby? Oh, you know [noisy exhalation of
breath]–the hotel where you raped me. Okay, skip it. I mean, was it [almost
in a whisper] The Enchanted Hunters? Oh, it was? [musingly] Was it?”–and
with a yelp of amorous vernal laughter she slapped the glossy bole and tore
uphill, to the end of the street, and then rode back, feet at rest on
stopped pedals, posture relaxed, one hand dreaming in her print-flowered
lap.
14
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Because it supposedly tied up with her interest in dance and dramatics,
I had permitted Lo to take piano lessons with a Miss Emperor (as we French
scholars may conveniently call her) to whose blue-shuttered little white
house a mile or so beyond Beardsley Lo would spin off twice a week. One
Friday night toward the end of May (and a week or so after the very special
rehearsal Lo had not had me attend) the telephone in my study, where I was
in the act of mopping up Gustave’s–I mean Gaston’s–king’s side, rang and
Miss Emperor asked if Lo was coming next Tuesday because she had missed last
Tuesday’s and today’s lessons. I said she would by all means–and went on
with the game. As the reader may well imagine, my faculties were now
impaired, and a move or two later, with Gaston to play, I noticed through
the film of my general distress that he could collect my queen; he noticed
it too, but thinking it might be a trap on the part of his tricky opponent,
he demurred for quite a minute, and puffed and wheezed, and shook his jowls,
and even shot furtive glances at me, and made hesitating half-thrusts with
his pudgily bunched fingers–dying to take that juicy queen and not
daring–and all of a sudden he swooped down upon it (who knows if it did not
teach him certain later audacities?), and I spent a dreary hour in achieving
a draw. He finished his brandy and presently lumbered away, quite satisfied
with this result (mon pauvre ami, je ne vous ai jamais revu et quoiqu’il
y ait bien peu de chance que vous voyiez mon livre, permiettez-moi de vous
dire que je vous serre la main bien cordialement, et que toutes mes
fillettes vous saluent). I found Dolores Haze at the kitchen table,
consuming a wedge of pie, with her eyes fixed on her script. They rose to
meet mine with a kind of celestial vapidity. She remained singularly
unruffled when confronted with my discovery, and said d’un petit air
faussement contrit that she knew she was a very wicked kid, but simply
had not been able to resist the enchantment, and had used up those music
hours–O Reader, My Reader!–in a nearby public park rehearsing the magic
forest scene with Mona. I said “fine”–and stalked to the telephone. Mona’s
mother answered: “Oh yes, she’s in” and retreated with a mother’s neutral
laugh of polite pleasure to shout off stage “Roy calling!” and the very next
moment Mona rustled up, and forthwith, in a low monotonous not untender
voice started berating Roy for something he had said or done and I
interrupted her, and presently Mona was saying in her humbles, sexiest
contralto, “yes, sir,” “surely, sir” “I am alone to blame, sir, in this
unfortunate business,” (what elocution! what poise!) “honest, I feel very
bad about it”–and so on and so forth as those little harlots say.
So downstairs I went clearing my throat and holding my heart. Lo was
now in the living room, in her favorite overstuffed chair. As she sprawled
there, biting at a hangnail an mocking me with her heartless vaporous eyes,
and all the time rocking a stool upon which she had placed the heel of an
outstretched shoeless foot, I perceived all at once with a sickening qualm
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how much she had changed since I first met her two years ago. Or had this
happened during those last two weeks? Tendresse? Surely that was an
exploded myth. She sat right in the focus of my incandescent anger. The fog
of all lust had been swept away leaving nothing but this dreadful lucidity.
Oh, she had changed! Her complexion was now that of any vulgar untidy
highschool girl who applies shared cosmetics with grubby fingers to an
unwashed face and does not mind what soiled texture, what pustulate
epidermis comes in contact with her skin. Its smooth tender bloom had been
so lovely in former days, so bright with tears, when I used to roll, in
play, her tousled head on my knee. A coarse flush had now replaced that
innocent fluorescence. What was locally known as a “rabbit cold” had painted
with flaming pink the edges of her contemptuous nostrils. As in terror I
lowered my gaze, it mechanically slid along the underside of her tensely
stretched bare thigh–how polished and muscular her legs had grown! She kept
her wide-set eyes, clouded-glass gray and slightly bloodshot, fixed upon me,
and I saw the stealthy thought showing through them that perhaps after all
Mona was right, and she, orphan Lo, could expose me without getting
penalized herself. How wrong I was. How mad I was! Everything about her was
of the same exasperating impenetrable order–the strength of her shapely
legs, the dirty sole of her white sock, the thick sweater she wore despite
the closeness of the room, her wenchy smell, and especially the dead end of
her face with its strange flush and freshly made-up lips. Some of the red
had left stains on her front teeth, and I was struck by a ghastly
recollection–the evoked image not of Monique, but of another young
prostitute in a bell-house, ages ago, who had been snapped up by somebody
else before I had time to decide whether her mere youth warranted my risking
some appalling disease, and who had just such flushed prominent
pommettes and a dead maman, and big front teeth, and a bit of
dingy red ribbon in her country-brown hair.
“Well, speak,” said Lo. “Was the corroboration satisfactory?”
“Oh, yes,” I said. “Perfect. yes. And I do not doubt you two made it
up. As a matter of fact, I do not doubt you have told her everything about
us.”
“Oh, yeah?”
I controlled my breath and said: “Dolores, this must stop right away. I
am ready to yank you out of Beardsley and lock you up you know where, but
this must stop. I am ready to take you away the time it takes to pack a
suitcase. This must stop or else anything may happen.”
“Anything may happen, huh?”
I snatched away the stool she was rocking with her heel and her foot
fell with a thud on the floor.
“Hey,” she cried, “take it easy.”
“First of all you go upstairs,” I cried in my turn,–and simultaneously
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grabbed at her and pulled her up. From that moment, I stopped restraining my
voice, and we continued yelling at each other, and she said, unprintable
things. She said she loathed me. She made monstrous faces at me, inflating
her cheeks and producing a diabolical plopping sound. She said I had
attempted to violate her several times when I was her mother’s roomer. She
said she was sure I had murdered her mother. She said she would sleep with
the very first fellow who asked her and I could do nothing about it. I said
she was to go upstairs and show me all her hiding places. It was a strident
and hateful scene. I held her by her knobby wrist and she kept turning and
twisting it this way and that, surreptitiously trying to find a weak point
so as to wrench herself free at a favorable moment, but I held her quite
hard and in fact hurt her rather badly for which I hope my heart may rot,
and once or twice she jerked her arm so violently that I feared her wrist
might snap, and all the while she stared at me with those unforgettable eyes
where could anger and hot tears struggled, and our voices were drowning the
telephone, and when I grew aware of its ringing she instantly escaped.
With people in movies I seem to share the services of the machina
telephonica and its sudden god. This time it was an irate neighbor. The east
window happened to be agape in the living room, with the blind mercifully
down, however; and behind it the damp black night of a sour New England
spring had been breathlessly listening to us. I had always thought that type
of haddocky spinster with the obscene mind was the result of considerable
literary inbreeding in modern fiction; but now I am convinced that prude and
prurient Miss East–or to explode her incognito, Miss Fenton Lebone–had
been probably protruding three-quarter-way from her bedroom window as she
strove to catch the gist of our quarrel.
“. . . This racket . . . lacks all sense of . . . ” quacked the
receiver, “we do not live in a tenement here. I must emphatically . . . ”
I apologized for my daughter’s friends being so loud. Young people, you
know–and cradled the next quack and a half.
Downstairs the screen door banged. Lo? Escaped?
Through the casement on the stairs I saw a small impetuous ghost slip
through the shrubs; a silvery dot in the dark–hub of the bicycle
wheel–moved, shivered, and she was gone.
It so happened that the car was spending the night in a repair shop
downtown. I had no other alternative than to pursue on foot the winged
fugitive. Even now, after more than three years have heaved and elapsed, I
cannot visualize that spring-night street, that already so leafy street,
without a gasp of panic. Before their lighted porch Miss Lester was
promenading Miss Favian’s dropsical dackel. Mr. Hyde almost knocked it over.
Walk three steps and runt three. A tepid rain started to drum on the
chestnut leaves. At the next corner, pressing Lolita against an iron
railing, a blurred youth held and kissed–no, not her, mistake. My talons
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still tingling, I flew on.
Half a mile or so east of number fourteen, Thayer Street tangles with a
private lane and a cross street; the latter leads to the town proper; in
front of the first drugstore, I saw–with what melody of relief!–Lolita’s
fair bicycle waiting for her. I pushed instead of pulling, pulled, pushed,
pulled, and entered. Look out! some ten paces away Lolita, though the glass
of a telephone booth (membranous god still with us), cupping the tube,
confidentially hunched over it, slit her eyes at me, turned away with her
treasure, hurriedly hung up, and walked out with a flourish.
“Tried to reach you at home,” she said brightly. “A great decision has
been made. But first buy me a drink, dad.”
She watched the listless pale fountain girl put in the ice, pour in the
coke, add the cherry syrup–and my heart was bursting with love-ache. That
childish wrist. My lovely child. You have a lovely child, Mr. Humbert. We
always admire her as she passes by. Mr. Pim watched Pippa suck in the
concoction.
J’ai toujours admirè l’oeuvre du sublime dublinois. And in the
meantime the rain had become a voluptuous shower.
“Look,” she said as she rode the bike beside me, one foot scraping the
darkly glistening sidewalk, “look, I’ve decided something. I want to leave
school I hate that school I hate the play, I really do! Never go back. Find
another. Leave at once. Go for a long trip again. But this time we’ll
go wherever I want, won’t we?”
I nodded. My Lolita.
“I choose? C’est entendu?” she asked wobbling a little beside
me. Used French only when she was a very good little girl.
“Okay. Entendu. Now hop-hop-hop, Lenore, or you’ll get soaked.”
(A storm of sobs was filling my chest.)
She bared her teeth and after her adorable school-girl fashioned,
leaned forward, and away she sped, my bird.
Miss Lester’s finely groomed hand held a porch-door open for a waddling
old dog qui prenait son temps.
Lo was waiting for me near the ghostly birch tree.
“I am drenched,” she declared at the top of her voice. “Are you glad?
To hell with the play! See what I mean?”
An invisible hag’s claw slammed down an upper-floor window.
In our hallway, ablaze with welcoming lights, my Lolita peeled off her
sweater, shook her gemmed hair, stretched towards me two bare arms, raised
one knee:
“Carry me upstairs, please. I feel sort of romantic tonight.”
It may interest physiologists to learn, at this point, that I have the
ability–a most singular case, I presume–of shedding torrents of tears
throughout the other tempest.
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15
The brakes were relined, the waterpipes unclogged, the valves ground,
and a number of other repairs and improvements were paid for by not very
mechanically-minded but prudent papa Humbert, so that the late Mrs.
Humbert’s car was in respectable shape when ready to undertake a new
journey.
We had promised Beardsley School, good old Beardsley School, that we
would be back as soon as my Hollywood engagement came to an end (inventive
Humbert was to be, I hinted, chief consultant in the production of a film
dealing with “existentialism,” still a hot thing at the time). Actually I
was toying with the idea of gently trickling across the Mexican border–I
was braver now than last year–and there deciding what to do with my little
concubine who was now sixty inches tall and weighed ninety pounds. We had
dug out our tour books and maps. She had traced our route with immense zest.
Was it thanks to those theatricals that she had now outgrown her juvenile
jaded airs and was so adorably keen to explore rich reality? I experienced
the queer lightness of dreams that pale but warm Sunday morning when we
abandoned Professor Chem’s puzzled house and sped along Main Street toward
the four-lane highway. My Love’s striped, black-and-white cotton frock,
jauntry blue with the large beautifully cut aquamarine on a silver chainlet,
which gemmed her throat: a spring rain gift from me. We passed the New
Hotel, and she laughed. “A penny for your thoughts,” I said and she
stretched out her palm at once, but at that moment I had to apply the breaks
rather abruptly at a red light. As we pulled up, another car came to a
gliding stop alongside, and a very striking looking, athletically lean young
woman (where had I seen her?) with a high complexion and shoulder-length
brilliant bronze hair, greeted Lo with a ringing “Hi!”–and then, addressing
me, effusively, edusively (placed!), stressing certain words, said: “What a
shame to was to tear Dolly away from the play–you should have
heard the author raving about her after that rehearsal–”
“Green light, you dope,” said Lo under her breath, and simultaneously,
waving in bright adieu a bangled arm, Joan of Arc (in a performance we saw
at the local theatre) violently outdistanced us to swerve into Campus
Avenue.
“Who was it exactly? Vermont or Rumpelmeyer?”
“No–Edusa Gold–the gal who coaches us.”
“I was not referring to her. Who exactly concocted that play?”
“Oh! Yes, of course. Some old woman, Clare Something, I guess. There
was quite a crowd of them there.”
“So she complimented you?”
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“Complimented my eye–she kissed me on my pure brow”–and my darling
emitted that new yelp of merriment which–perhaps in connection with her
theatrical mannerisms–she had lately begun to affect.
“You are a funny creature, Lolita,” I said–or some such words.
“Naturally, I am overjoyed you gave up that absurd stage business. But what
is curious is that you dropped the whole thing only a week before its
natural climax. Oh, Lolita, you should be careful of those surrenders of
yours. I remember you gave up Ramsdale for camp, and camp for a joyride, and
I could list other abrupt changes in your disposition. You must be careful.
There are things that should never be given up. You must persevere. You
should try to be a little nicer to me, Lolita. You should also watch your
diet. The tour of your thigh, you know, should not exceed seventeen and a
half inches. More might be fatal (I was kidding, of course). We are now
setting out on a long happy journey. I remember–”
16
I remember as a child in Europe gloating over a map of North America
that had “Appalachian Mountains” boldly running from Alabama up to New
Brunswick, so that the whole region they spanned–Tennessee, the Virginias,
Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, appeared to my
imagination as a gigantic Switzerland or even Tibet, all mountain, glorious
diamond peak upon peak, giant conifers, le montagnard èmigrè in his
bear skin glory, and Felis tigris goldsmithi, and Red Indians under
the catalpas. That it all boiled down to a measly suburban lawn and a
smoking garbage incinerator, was appalling. Farewell, Appalachia! Leaving
it, we crossed Ohio, the three states beginning with “I,” and Nebraska–ah,
that first whiff of the West! We traveled very leisurely, having more than a
week to reach Wace, Continental Divide, where she passionately desired to
see he Ceremonial Dances marking the seasonal opening of Magic Cave, and at
least three weeks to reach Elphinstone, gem of a western State where she
yearned to climb Red Rock from which a mature screen star had recently
jumped to her death after a drunken row with her gigolo.
Again we were welcomed to wary motels by means of inscriptions that
read:
“We wish you feel at home while here. All equipment was
carefully checked upon your arrival. Your license number is on record here.
Use hot water sparingly. We reserve the right to eject without notice any
objectionable person. Do not throw waste material of any kind in the
toilet bowl. Thank you. Call again. The Management. P.S. We consider our
guests the Finest People of the World.”
In these frightening places we paid ten for twins, flies queued outside
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at the screenless door and successfully scrambled in, the ashes of our
predecessors still lingered in the ashtrays, a woman’s hair lay on the
pillow, one heard one’s neighbor hanging his coat in his closet, the hangers
were ingeniously fixed to their bars by coils of wire so as to thwart theft,
and, in crowning insult, the pictures above the twin beds were identical
twins. I also noticed that commercial fashion was changing. There was a
tendency for cabins to fuse and gradually form the caravansary, and, lo (she
was not interested but the reader may be), a second story was added, and a
lobby grew in, and cars were removed to a communal garage, and the motel
reverted to the good old hotel.
I now warn the reader not to mock me and my mental daze. It is easy for
him and me to decipher now a past destiny; but a destiny in the
making is, believe me, not one of those honest mystery stories where all you
have to do is keep an eye on the clues. In my youth I once read a French
detective tale where the clues were actually in italics; but that is not
McFate’s way–even if one does learn to recognize certain obscure
indications.
For instance: I would not swear that there was not at least one
occasion, prior to, or at the very beginning of, the Midwest lap of our
journey, when she managed to convey some information to, or otherwise get
into contact with, a person or persons unknown. We had stopped at a gas
station, under the sign of Pegasus, and she had slipped out of her seat and
escaped to the rear of the premises while the raised hood, under which I had
bent to watch the mechanic’s manipulations, hid her for a moment from my
sight. Being inclined to be lenient, I only shook my benign head though
strictly speaking such visits were taboo, since I felt instinctively that
toilets–as also telephones–happened to be, for reasons unfathomable, the
points where my destiny was liable to catch. We all have such fateful
objects–it may be a recurrent landscape in one case, a number in
another–carefully chosen by the gods to attract events of special
significance for us: here shall John always stumble; there shall Jane’s
heart always break.
Well–my car had been attended to, and I had moved it away from the
pumps to let a pickup truck be serviced–when the growing volume of her
absence began to weigh upon me in the windy grayness. Not for the first
time, and not for the last, had I stared in such dull discomfort of mind at
those stationary trivialities that look almost surprised, like staring
rustics, to find themselves in the stranded traveler’s field of vision: that
green garbage can, those very black, very whitewalled tires for sale, those
bright cans of motor oil, that red icebox with assorted drinks, the four,
five, seven discarded bottles within the incompleted crossword puzzle of
their wooden cells, that bug patiently walking up the inside of the window
of the office. Radio music was coming from its open door, and because the
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rhythm was not synchronized with the heave and flutter and other gestures of
wind-animated vegetation, one had the impression of an old scenic film
living its own life while piano or fiddle followed a line of music quite
outside the shivering flower, the swaying branch. The sound of Charlotte’s
last sob incongruously vibrated through me as, with her dress fluttering
athwart the rhythm, Lolita veered from a totally unexpected direction. She
had found the toilet occupied and had crossed over to the sign of the Conche
in the next block. They said there they were proud of their home-clean
restrooms. These prepaid postcards, they said, had been provided for your
comments. No postcards. No soap. Nothing. No comments.
That day or the next, after a tedious drive through a land of food
crops, we reached a pleasant little burg and put up at Chestnut Court–nice
cabins, damp green grounds, apple trees, an old swing–and a tremendous
sunset which the tried child ignored. She had wanted to go through Kasbeam
because it was only thirty miles north from her home town but on the
following morning I found her quite listless, with no desire to see again
the sidewalk where she had played hopscotch some five years before. For
obvious reasons I had rather dreaded that side trip, even though we had
agreed not to make ourselves conspicuous in any way–to remain in the car
and not look up old friends. My relief at her abandoning the project was
spoiled by the thought that had she felt I were totally against the
nostalgic possibilities of Pisky, as I had been last year, she would not
have given up so easily. On my mentioning this with a sigh, she sighed too
and complained of being out of sorts. She wanted to remain in bed till
teatime at least, with lots of magazines, and then if she felt better she
suggested we just continue westward. I must say she was very sweet and
languid, and craved for fresh fruits, and I decided to go and fetch her a
toothsome picnic lunch in Kasbeam. Our cabin stood on the timbered crest of
a hill, and from our window you could see the road winding down, and then
running as straight as a hair parting between two rows of chestnut trees,
towards the pretty town, which looked singularly distinct and toylike in the
pure morning distance. One could make out an elf-like girl on an insect-like
bicycle, and a dog, a bit too large proportionately, all as clear as those
pilgrims and mules winding up wax-pale roads in old paintings with blue
hills and red little people. I have the European urge to use my feet when a
drive can be dispensed with, so I leisurely walked down, eventually meeting
the cyclist–a plain plump girl with pigtails, followed by a huge St.
Bernard dog with orbits like pansies. In Kasbeam a very old barber gave me a
very mediocre haircut: he babbled of a baseball-playing son of his, and, at
every explodent, spat into my neck, and every now and then wiped his glasses
on my sheet-wrap, or interrupted his tremulous scissor work to produce faded
newspaper clippings, and so inattentive was I that it came as a shock to
realize as he pointed to an easeled photograph among the ancient gray
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lotions, that the mustached young ball player had been dead for the last
thirty years.
I had a cup of hot flavorless coffee, bought a bunch of bananas for my
monkey, and spent another ten minutes or so in a delicatessen store. At
least an hour and a half must have elapsed when this homeward-bound little
pilgrim appeared on the winding road leading to Chestnut Castle.
The girl I had seen on my way to town was now loaded with linen and
engaged in helping a misshapen man whose big head and coarse features
reminded me of the “Bertoldo” character in low Italian comedy. They were
cleaning the cabins of which there was a dozen or so on Chestnut Crest, all
pleasantly spaced amid the copious verdure. It was noon, and most of them,
with a final bang of their screen doors, had already got rid of their
occupants. A very elderly, almost mummy-like couple in a very new model were
in the act of creeping out of one of the contiguous garages; from another a
red hood protruded in somewhat cod-piece fashion; and nearer to our cabin, a
strong and handsome young man with a shock of black hair and blue eyes was
putting a portable refrigerator into a station wagon. For some reason he
gave me a sheepish grin as I passed. On the grass expanse opposite, in the
many-limbed shade of luxuriant trees, the familiar St. Bernard dog was
guarding his mistress’ bicycle, and nearby a young woman, far gone in the
family way, had seated a rapt baby on a swing and was rocking it gently,
while a jealous boy of two or three was making a nuisance of himself by
trying to push or pull the swing board; he finally succeeded in getting
himself knocked down by it, and bawled loudly as he lay supine on the grass
while his mother continued to smile gently at neither of her present
children. I recall so clearly these minutiae probably because I was to
check my impressions so thoroughly only a few minutes later; and besides,
something in me had been on guard ever since that awful night in Beardsley.
I now refused to be diverted by the feeling of well-being that my walk had
engendered–by the young summer breeze that enveloped the nape of my neck,
the giving crunch of the damn gravel, the juice tidbit. I had sucked out at
last from a hollowy tooth, and even the comfortable weight of my provisions
which the general condition of my heart should not have allowed me to carry;
but even that miserable pump of mine seemed to be working sweetly, and I
felt adolori d’amoureuse langueur, to quote dear old Ronsard, as I
reached the cottage where I had left my Dolores.
To my surprise I found her dressed. She was sitting on the edge of the
bed in slacks and T-shirt, and was looking at me as if she could not quite
place me. The frank soft shape of her small breasts was brought out rather
than blurred by the limpness of her thin shirt, and this frankness irritated
me. She had not washed; yet her mouth was freshly though smudgily painted,
and her broad teeth glistened like wine-tinged ivory, or pinkish poker
chips. And there she sat, hands clasped in her lap, and dreamily brimmed
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with a diabolical glow that had no relations to me whatever.
I plumped down my heavy paper bag and stood staring at the bare ankles
of her sandaled feet, then at her silly face, then again at her sinful feet.
“You’ve been out,” I said (the sandals were filthy with gravel).
“I just got up,” she replied, and added upon intercepting my downward
glance: “Went out for a sec. Wanted to see if you were coming back.”
She became aware of the bananas and uncoiled herself tableward.
What special suspicion could I have? None indeed–but those muddy,
moony eyes of hers, that singular warmth emanating from her! I said nothing.
I looked at the road meandering so distinctly within the frame of the
window. . . Anybody wishing to betray my trust would have found it a
splendid lookout. With rising appetite, Lo applied herself to the fruit. All
at once I remembered the ingratiating grin of the Johnny next door. I
stepped out quickly. All cars had disappeared except his station wagon; his
pregnant young wife was not getting into it with her baby and the other,
more or less canceled, child.
“What’s the matter, where are you going?” cried Lo from the porch.
I said nothing. I pushed her softness back into the room and went in
after her. I ripped her shirt off. I unzipped the rest of her, I tore off
her sandals. Wildly, I pursued the shadow of her infidelity; but the scent I
traveled upon was so slight as to be practically undistinguishable from a
madman’s fancy.
17
Gros Gaston, in his prissy way, had liked to make
presents–presents just a prissy wee bit out of the ordinary, or so he
prissily thought. Noticing one night that my box of chessmen was broken, he
sent me next morning, with a little lad of his, a copper case: it had an
elaborate Oriental design over the lid and could be securely locked. Once
glance sufficed to assure me that it was one of those cheap money boxes
called for some reason “luizettas” that you buy in Algiers and elsewhere,
and wonder what to do with afterwards. It turned out to be much too flat for
holding my bulky chessmen, but I kept it–using it for a totally different
purpose.
In order to break some pattern of fate in which I obscurely felt myself
being enmeshed, I had decided–despite Lo’s visible annoyance–to spend
another night at Chestnut Court; definitely waking up at four in the
morning, I ascertained that Lo was still sound asleep (mouth open, in a kind
of dull amazement at the curiously inane life we all had rigged up for her)
and satisfied myself that the precious contents of the “luizetta” were safe.
There, snugly wrapped in a white woolen scarf, lay a pocket automatic:
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caliber .32, capacity of magazine 8 cartridges, length a little under one
ninth of Lolita’s length, stock checked walnut, finish full blued. I had
inherited it from the late Harold Haze, with a 1938 catalog which cheerily
said in part: “Particularly well adapted for use in the home and car as well
as on the person.” There it lay, ready for instant service on the person or
persons, loaded and fully cocked with the slide lock in safety position,
thus precluding any accidental discharge. We must remember that a pistol is
the Freudian symbol of the Ur-father’s central forelimb.
I was now glad I had it with me–and even more glad that I had learned
to use it two years before, in the pine forest around my and Charlotte’s
glass lake. Farlow, with whom I had roamed those remote woods, was an
admirable marksman, and with his .38 actually managed to hit a hummingbird,
though I must say not much of it could be retrieved for proof–only a little
iridescent fluff. A burley ex-policeman called Krestovski, who in the
twenties had shot and killed two escaped convicts, joined us and bagged a
tiny woodpecker–completely out of season, incidentally. Between those two
sportsmen I of course was a novice and kept missing everything, though I did
would a squirrel on a later occasion when I went out alone. “You like here,”
I whispered to my light-weight compact little chum, and then toasted it with
a dram of gin.
18
The reader must now forget Chestnuts and Colts, and accompany us
further west. The following days were marked by a number of great
thunderstorms–or perhaps, thee was but one single storm which progressed
across country in ponderous frogleaps and which we could not shake off just
as we could not shake off detective Trapp: for it was during those days that
the problem of the Aztec Red Convertible presented itself to me, and quite
overshadowed the theme of Lo’s lovers.
Queer! I who was jealous of every male we met–queer, how I
misinterpreted the designations of doom. Perhaps I had been lulled by Lo’s
modest behavior in winter, and anyway it would have been too foolish even
for a lunatic to suppose another Humbert was avidly following Humbert and
Humbert’s nymphet with Jovian fireworks, over the great and ugly plains. I
surmised, donc, that the Red Yak keeping behind us at a discreet
distance mile after mile was operated by a detective whom some busybody had
hired to see what exactly Humbert Humbert was doing with that minor
stepdaughter of his. As happens with me at periods of electrical disturbance
and crepitating lightnings, I had hallucinations. Maybe they were more than
hallucinations. I do not know what she or he, or both had put into my liquor
but one night I felt sure somebody was tapping on the door of our cabin, and
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I flung it open, and noticed two things–that I was stark naked and that,
white-glistening in the rain-dripping darkness, there stood a man holding
before his face the mask of Jutting Chin, a grotesque sleuth in the funnies.
He emitted a muffled guffaw and scurried away, and I reeled back into the
room, and fell asleep again, and am not sure even to this day that the visit
was not a drug-provoked dream: I have thoroughly studied Trapp’s type of
humor, and this might have been a plausible sample. Oh, crude and absolutely
ruthless! Somebody, I imagined, was making money on those masks of popular
monsters and morons. Did I see next morning two urchins rummaging in a
garbage can and trying on Jutting Chin? I wonder. It may all have been a
coincidence–due to atmospheric conditions, I suppose.
Being a murderer with a sensational but incomplete and unorthodox
memory, I cannot tell you, ladies and gentlemen, the exact day when I first
knew with utter certainty that the red convertible was following us. I do
remember, however, the first time I saw its driver quite clearly. I was
proceeding slowly one afternoon through torrents of rain and kept seeing
that red ghost swimming and shivering with lust in my mirror, when presently
the deluge dwindled to a patter, and then was suspended altogether. With a
swishing sound a sunburst swept the highway, and needing a pair of new
sunglasses, I pussled up at a filling station. What was happening was a
sickness, a cancer, that could not be helped, so I simply ignored the fact
that our quiet pursuer, in his converted state, stopped a little behind us
at a cafe or bar bearing the idiotic sign: The Bustle: A Deceitful Seatful.
Having seen to the needs of my car, I walked into the office to get those
glasses and pay for the gas. As I was in the act of signing a traveler’s
check and wondered about my exact whereabouts, I happened to glance through
a side window, and saw a terrible thing. A broad-backed man, baldish, in an
oatmeal coat and dark-brown trousers, was listening to Lo who was leaning
out of the car and talking to him very rapidly, her hand with outspread
fingers going up and down as it did when she was very serious and emphatic.
What struck me with sickening force was–how should I put it?–the voluble
familiarity of her way, as if they had known each other–oh, for weeks and
weeks. I saw him scratch his cheek and nod, and turn, and walk back to his
convertible, a broad and thickish man of my age, somewhat resembling Gustave
Trapp, a cousin of my father’s in Switzerland–same smoothly tanned face,
fuller than mine, with a small dark mustache and a rosebud degenerate mouth.
Lolita was studying a road map when I got back into the car.
“What did that man ask you, Lol?”
“Man? Oh, that man. Oh yes. Oh, I don’t know. He wondered if I had a
map. Lost his way, I guess.”
We drove on, and I said:
“Now listen, Lo. I do not know whether you are lying or not, and I do
not know whether you are insane or not, and I do not care for the moment;
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but that person has been following us all day, and his car was at the motel
yesterday, and I think he is a cop. You know perfectly well what will happen
and where you will go if the police find out about things. Now I want to
know exactly what he said to you and what you told him.”
She laughed.
“If he’s really a cop,” she said shrilly but not illogically, “the
worst thing we could do, would be to show him we are scared. Ignore him,
Dad.”
“Did he ask where we were going?”
“Oh, he knows that” (mocking me).
“Anyway,” I said, giving up, “I have seen his face now. He is not
pretty. He looks exactly like a relative of mine called Trapp.”
“Perhaps he is Trapp. If I were you–Oh, look, all the nines are
changing into the next thousand. When I was a little kid,” she continued
unexpectedly, “I used to think they’d stop and go back to nines, if only my
mother agreed to put the car in reverse.”
It was the first time, I think, she spoke spontaneously of her
pre-Humbertian childhood; perhaps, the theatre had taught her that trick;
and silently we traveled on, unpursued.
But next day, like pain in a fatal disease that comes back as the drug
and hope wear off, there it was again behind us, that glossy red beast. The
traffic on the highway was light that day; nobody passed anybody; and nobody
attempted to get in between our humble blue car and its imperious red
shadow–as if there were some spell cast on that interspace, a zone of evil
mirth and magic, a zone whose very precision and stability had a glass-like
virtue that was almost artistic. The driver behind me, with his stuffed
shoulders and Trappish mustache, looked like a display dummy, and his
convertible seemed to move only because an invisible rope of silent silk
connected it with out shabby vehicle. We were many times weaker than his
splendid, lacquered machine, so that I did not even attempt to outspeed him.
O lente currite noctis equi! O softly run, nightmares! We climbed
long grades and rolled downhill again, and heeded speed limits, and spared
slow children, and reproduced in sweeping terms the black wiggles of curves
on their yellow shields, and no matter how and where we drove, the enchanted
interspace slid on intact, mathematical, mirage-like, the viatic counterpart
of a magic carpet. And all the time I was aware of a private blaze on my
right: her joyful eye, her flaming cheek.
A traffic policeman, deep in the nightmare of crisscross streets–at
half-past-four p.m. in a factory town–was the hand of chance that
interrupted the spell. He beckoned me on, and then with the same hand cut
off my shadow. A score of cars were launched in between us, and I sped on,
and deftly turned into a narrow lane. A sparrow alighted with a jumbo bread
crumb, was tackled by another, and lost the crumb.
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When after a few grim stoppages and a bit of deliberate meandering, I
returned to the highway, our shadow had disappeared.
Lola snorted and said: “If he is what you think he is, how silly to
give him the slip.”
“I have other notions by now,” I said.
“You should–ah–check them by–ah–keeping in touch with him, fahther
deah,” said Lo, writhing in the coils of her own sarcasm. “Gee, you
are mean,” she added in her ordinary voice.
We spent a grim night in a very foul cabin, under a sonorous amplitude
of rain, and with a kind of prehistorically loud thunder incessantly rolling
above us.
“I am not a lady and do not like lightning,” said Lo, whose dread of
electric storms gave me some pathetic solace.
We had breakfast in the township of Soda, pop. 1001.
“Judging by the terminal figure,” I remarked, “Fatface is already
here.”
“Your humor,” said Lo, “is sidesplitting, deah fahther.”
We were in sage-brush country by that time, and there was a day or two
of lovely release (I had been a fool, all was well, that discomfort was
merely a trapped flatus), and presently the mesas gave way to real
mountains, and, on time, we drove into Wace.
Oh, disaster. Some confusion had occurred, she had misread a date in
the Tour Book, and the Magic Cave ceremonies were over! She took it bravely,
I must admit–and, when we discovered there was in kurortish Wace a summer
theatre in full swing, we naturally drifted toward it one fair mid-June
evening. I really could not tell you the plot of the play we saw. A trivial
affair, no doubt, with self-conscious light effects and a mediocre leading
lady. The only detail that pleased me was a garland of seven little graces,
more or less immobile, prettily painted, barelimbed–seven bemused pubescent
girls in colored gauze that had been recruited locally (judging by the
partisan flurry here and there among the audience) and were supposed to
represent a living rainbow, which lingered throughout the last act, and
rather teasingly faded behind a series of multiplied veils. I remember
thinking that this idea of children-colors had been lifted by authors Clare
Quilty and Vivian Darkbloom from a passage in James Joyce, and that two of
the colors were quite exasperatingly lovely–Orange who kept fidgeting all
the time, and Emerald who, when her eyes got used to the pitch-black pit
where we all heavily sat, suddenly smiled at her mother or her protector.
As soon as the thing was over, and manual applause–a sound my nerves
cannot stand–began to crash all around me, I started to pull and push Lo
toward the exit, in my so natural amorous impatience to get her back to our
neon-blue cottage in the stunned, starry night: I always say nature is
stunned by the sights she sees. Dolly-Lo, however, lagged behind, in a rosy
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daze, her pleased eyes narrowed, her sense of vision swamping the rest of
her senses to such an extent that her limp hands hardly came together at all
in the mechanical action of clapping they still went through. I had seen
that kind of thing in children before but, by God, this was a special child,
myopically beaming at the already remote stage where I glimpsed something of
the joint authors–a man’s tuxedo and the bare shoulders of a hawk-like,
black-haired, strikingly tall woman.
“You’ve again hurt my wrist, you brute,” said Lolita in a small voice
as she slipped into her car seat.
“I am dreadfully sorry, my darling, my own ultraviolet darling,” I
said, unsuccessfully trying to catch her elbow, and I added, to change the
conversation–to change the direction of fate, oh God, oh God: “Vivian is
quite a woman. I am sure we saw her yesterday in that restaurant, in Soda
pop.”
“Sometimes,” said Lo, “you are quite revoltingly dumb. First, Vivian is
the male author, the gal author is Clare; and second, she is forty, married
and has Negro blood.”
“I thought,” I said kidding her, “Quilty was an ancient flame of yours,
in the days when you loved me, in sweet old Ramsdale.”
“What?” countered Lo, her features working. “that fat dentist? You must
be confusing me with some other fast little article.”
And I thought to myself how those fast little articles forget
everything, everything, while we, old lovers, treasure every inch of their
nymphancy.
19
With Lo’s knowledge and assent, the two post offices given to the
Beardsley postmaster as forwarding addresses were P.O. Wace and P.O.
Elphinstone. Next morning we visited the former and had to wait in a short
but slow queue. Serene Lo studied the rogues’ gallery. Handsome Bryan
Bryanski, alias Anthony Bryan, alias Tony Brown, eyes hazel, complexion
fair, was wanted for kidnapping. A sad-eyed old gentleman’s faux-pas was
mail fraud, and, as if that were not enough, he was cursed with deformed
arches. Sullen Sullivan came with a caution: Is believed armed, and should
be considered extremely dangerous. If you want to make a movie out of my
book, have one of these faces gently melt into my own, while I look. And
moreover there was a smudgy snapshot of a Missing Girl, age fourteen,
wearing brown shoes when last seen, rhymes. Please notify Sheriff Buller.
I forget my letters; as to Dolly’s, there was her report and a very
special-looking envelope. This I deliberately opened and perused its
contents. I concluded I was doing the foreseen since she did not seem to
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mind and drifted toward the newsstand near the exit.
“Dolly-Lo: Well, the play was a grand success. All three hounds lay
quiet having been slightly drugged by Cutler, I suspect, and Linda knew all
your lines. She was fine, she had alertness and control, but lacked somehow
the responsiveness, the relaxed vitality, the charm of
my–and the author’s–Diana; but there was no author to applaud us as
last time, and the terrific electric storm outside interfered with our own
modest offstage thunder. Oh dear, life does fly. Now that everything is
over, school, play, the Roy mess, mother’s confinement (our baby, alas, did
not live!), it all seems such a long time ago, though practically I still
bear traces of the paint.
“We are going to New York after tomorrow, and I guess I can’t manage to
wriggle out of accompanying my parents to Europe. I have even worse news for
you. Dolly-Lo! I may not be back at Beardsley if and when you return. With
one thing and another, one being you know who, and the other not being who
you think you know, Dad wants me to go to school in Paris for one year while
he and Fullbright are around.
“As expected, poor Poet stumbled in Scene III when arriving at the bit
of French nonsense. Remember? Ne manque pas de dire þ ton amant, Chimõne,
comme le lac est beau car il faut qu’il t’y mène. Lucky beau! Qu’il
t’y–What a tongue-twister! Well, be good, Lollikins. Best love from
your Poet, and best regards to the Governor. Your Mona. P.S. Because of one
thing and another, my correspondence happens to be rigidly controlled. So
better wait till I write you from Europe.” (She never did as far as I know.
The letter contained an element of mysterious nastiness that I am too tired
today to analyze. I found it later preserved in one of the Tour Books, and
give it here þ titre documentaire. I read it twice.)
I looked up from the letter and was about to–There was no Lo to
behold. While I was engrossed in Mona’s witchery, Lo had shrugged her
shoulders and vanished. “Did you happen to see–” I asked of a hunchback
sweeping the floor near the entrance. He had, the old lecherer. He guessed
she had seen a friend and had hurried out. I hurried out too. I stopped–she
had not. I hurried on. I stopped again. It had happened at last. She had
gone for ever.
In later years I have often wondered why she did not go forever
that day. Was it the retentive quality of her new summer clothes in my
locked car? Was it some unripe particle in some general plan? Was it simply
because, all things considered, I might as well be used to convey her to
Elphinstone–the secret terminus, anyway? I only know I was quite certain
she had left me for ever. The noncommittal mauve mountains half encircling
the town seemed to me to swarm with panting, scrambling, laughing, panting
Lolitas who dissolved in their haze. A big W made of white stones on a steep
talus in the far vista of a cross street seemed the very initial of woe.
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The new and beautiful post office I had just emerged from stood between
a dormant movie house and a conspiracy of poplars. The time was 9 a.m.
mountain time. The street was charming it into beauty, was one of those
fragile young summer mornings with flashes of glass here and there and a
general air of faltering and almost fainting at the prospect of an
intolerably torrid noon. Crossing over, I loafed and leafed, as it were,
through one long block: Drugs, Real Estate, Fashions, Auto Parts, Cafe,
Sporting Goods, Real Estate, Furniture, Appliances, Western Union, Cleaners,
Grocery. Officer, officer, my daughter has run away. In collusion with a
detective; in love with a black-mailer. Took advantage of my utter
helplessness. I peered into all the stores. I deliberated inly if I should
talk to any of the sparse foot-passengers. I did not. I sat for a while in
the parked car. I inspected the public garden on the east side. I went back
to Fashions and Auto Parts. I told myself with a burst of furious
sarcasm–un ricanement–that I was crazy to suspect her, that she
would turn up any minute.
She did.
I wheeled around and shook off the hand she had placed on my sleeve
with a timid and imbecile smile.
“Get into the car,” I said.
She obeyed, and I went on pacing up and down, struggling with nameless
thoughts, trying to plan some way of tackling her duplicity.
Presently she left the car and was at my side again. My sense of
hearing gradually got tuned in to station Lo again, and I became aware she
was telling me that she had met a former girl friend.
“Yes? Whom?”
“A Beardsley girl.”
“Good. I now every name in your group. Alice Adams?”
“The girl was not in my group.”
“Good. I have a complete student list with me. Her name please.”
“She was not in my school She is just a town girl in Beardsley.”
“Good. I have the Beardsley directory with me too. We’ll look up all
the Browns.”
“I only know her first name.”
“Mary or Jane?”
“No–Dolly, like me.”
“So that’s the dead end” (the mirror you break your nose against).
“Good. Let us try another angle. You have been absent twenty-eight minutes.
What did the two Dollys do?”
“We went to a drugstore.”
“And you had there–?”
“Oh, just a couple of Cokes.”
“Careful, Dolly. We can check that, you know.”
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“At least, she had. I had a glass of water.”
“Good. Was it that place there?”
“Sure.”
“Good, come on, we’ll grill the soda jerk.”
“Wait a sec. Come to think it might have been further down–just around
the corner.”
“Come on all the same. Go in please. Well, let’s see.” (Opening a
chained telephone book.) “Dignified Funeral Service. NO, not yet. Here we
are: Druggists-Retail. Hill Drug Store. Larkin’s Pharmacy. And two more.
That’s all Wace seems to have in the way of soda fountains–at least in the
business section. Well, we will check them all.”
“Go to hell,” she said.
“Lo, rudeness will get you nowhere.”
“Okay,” she said. “But you’re not going to trap me. Okay, so we did not
have a pop. We just talked and looked at dresses in show windows.”
“Which? That window there for example?”
“Yes, that one there, for example.”
“Oh Lo! Let’s look closer at it.”
It was indeed a pretty sight. A dapper young fellow was vacuum-cleaning
a carpet upon which stood two figures that looked as if some blast had just
worked havoc with them. One figure was stark naked, wigless and armless. Its
comparatively small stature and smirking pose suggested that when clothed it
had represented, and would represent when clothed again, a girl-child of
Lolita’s size. But in its present state it was sexless. Next to it, stood a
much taller veiled bride, quite perfect and intact except for the
lack of one arm. On the floor, at the feet of these damsels, where the man
crawled about laboriously with his cleaner, there lay a cluster of three
slender arms, and a blond wig. Two of the arms happened to be twisted and
seemed to suggest a clasping gesture of horror and supplication.
“Look, Lo,” I said quietly. “Look well. Is not that a rather good
symbol of something or other? However”–I went on as we got back into the
car–“I have taken certain precautions. Here (delicately opening the glove
compartment), on this pad I have our boy friend’s car number.”
As the ass I was I had not memorized it. What remained of it in my mind
were the initial letter and the closing figure as if the whole amphitheater
of six signs receded concavely behind a tinted glass too opaque to allow the
central series to be deciphered, but just translucent enough to make out its
extreme edges–a capital P and a 6. I have to go into those details (which
in themselves can interest only a professional psychologue) because
otherwise the reader (ah, if I could visualize him as a blond-bearded
scholar with rosy lips sucking la pomme de sa canne as he quaffs my
manuscript!) might not understand the quality of the shock I experienced
upon noticing that the P had acquired the bustle of a B and that the 6 had
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been deleted altogether. The rest, with erasures revealing the hurried
shuttle smear of a pencil’s rubber end, and with parts of numbers
obliterated or reconstructed in a child’s hand, presented a tangle of barbed
wire to any logical interpretation. All I knew was the state–one adjacent
to the state Beardsley was in.
I said nothing. I put the pad back, closed the compartment, and drove
out of Wace. Lo had grabbed some comics from the back seat and,
mobile-white-bloused, one brown elbow out of the window, was deep in the
current adventure of some clout or clown. Three or four miles out of Wace, I
turned into the shadow of a picnic ground where the morning had dumped its
litter of light on an empty table; Lo looked up with a semi-smile of
surprise and without a word I delivered a tremendous backhand cut that
caught her smack on her hot hard little cheekbone.
And then the remorse, the poignant sweetness of sobbing atonement,
groveling love, the hopelessness of sensual reconciliation. In the velvet
night, at Mirana Motel (Mirana!) I kissed the yellowish soles of her
long-toed feet, I immolated myself . . . But it was all of no avail. both
doomed were we. And soon I was to enter a new cycle of persecution.
In a street of Wace, on its outskirts . . . Oh, I am quite sure it was
not a delusion. In a street of Wace, I had glimpsed the Aztec Red
Convertible, or its identical twin. Instead of Trapp, it contained four or
five loud young people of several sexes–but I said nothing. After Wace a
totally new situation arose. For a day or two, I enjoyed the mental emphasis
with which I told myself that we were not, and never had been followed; and
then I became sickeningly conscious that Trapp had changed his tactics and
was still with us, in this or that rented car.
A veritable Proteus of the highway, with bewildering ease he switched
from one vehicle to another. This technique implied the existence of garages
specializing in “stage-automobile” operations, but I never could discover
the remises he used. He seemed to patronize at first the Chevrolet genus,
beginning with a Campus Cream convertible, then going on to a small Horizon
Blue sedan, and thenceforth fading into Surf Gray and Driftwood Gray. Then
he turned to other makes and passed through a pale dull rainbow of paint
shades, and one day I found myself attempting to cope with the subtle
distinction between our own Dream Blue Melmoth and the Crest Blue Oldsmobile
he had rented; grays, however, remained his favorite cryptochromism, and, in
agonizing nightmares, I tried in vain to sort out properly such ghosts as
Chrysler’s Shell Gray, Chevrolet’s Thistle Gray, Dodge’s French Gray . . .
The necessity of being constantly on the lookout for his little
mustache and open shirt–or for his baldish pate and broad shoulders–led me
to a profound study of all cars on the road–behind, before, alongside,
coming, going, every vehicle under the dancing sun: the quiet vacationist’s
automobile with the box of Tender-Touch tissues in the back window; the
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recklessly speeding jalopy full of pale children with a shaggy dog’s head
protruding, and a crumpled mudguard; the bachelor’s tudor sedan crowded with
suits on hangers; the huge fat house trailer weaving in front, immune to the
Indian file of fury boiling behind it; the car with the young female
passenger politely perched in the middle of the front seat to be closer to
the young male driver; the car carrying on its roof a red boat bottom up . .
. The gray car slowing up before us, the gray car catching up with us.
We were in mountain country, somewhere between Snow and Champion, and
rolling down an almost imperceptible grade, when I had my next distinct view
of Detective Paramour Trapp. The gray mist behind us had deepened and
concentrated into the compactness of a Dominion Blue sedan. All of a sudden,
as if the car I drove responded to my poor heart’s pangs, we were slithering
from side to side, with something making a helpless plap-plap-plap under us.
“You got a flat, mister,” said cheerful Lo.
I pulled up–near a precipice. She folded her arms and put her foot on
the dashboard. I got out and examined the right rear wheel. The base of its
tire was sheepishly and hideously square. Trapp had stopped some fifty yards
behind us. His distant face formed a grease spot of mirth. This was my
chance. I started to walk towards him–with the brilliant idea of asking him
for a jack through I had one. He backed a little. I stubbed my toe against a
stone–and there was a sense of general laughter. Then a tremendous truck
loomed from behind Trapp and thundered by me–and immediately after, I heard
it utter a convulsive honk. Instinctively I looked back–and saw my own car
gently creeping away. I could make out Lo ludicrously at the wheel, and the
engine was certainly running–though I remembered I had cut it but had not
applied the emergency brake; and during the brief space of throb-time that
it took me to reach the croaking machine which came to a standstill at last,
it dawned upon me that during the last two years little Lo had had ample
time to pick up the rudiments of driving. As I wrenched the door open, I was
goddamn sure she had started the car to prevent me from walking up to Trapp.
Her trick proved useless, however, for even while I was puruing her he had
made an energetic U-turn and was gone. I rested for a while. Lo asked wasn’t
I going to thank her–the car had started to move by itself and–Getting no
answer, she immersed herself in a study of the map. I got out again and
commenced the “ordeal of the orb,” as Charlotte used to say. Perhaps, I was
losing my mind.
We continued our grotesque journey. After a forlorn and useless dip, we
went up and up. On a steep grade I found myself behind the gigantic truck
that had overtaken us. It was now groaning up a winding road and was
impossible to pass. Out of its front part a small oblong of smooth
silver–the inner wrapping of chewing gum–escaped and flew back into our
windshield. It occurred to me that if I were really losing my mind, I might
end by murdering somebody. In fact–said high-and-dry Humbert to floundering
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Humbert–it might be quite clever to prepare things–to transfer the weapon
from box to pocket–so as to be ready to take advantage of the spell of
insanity when it does come.
20
By permitting Lolita to study acting I had, fond fool, suffered her to
cultivate deceit. It now appeared that it had not been merely a matter of
learning the answers to such questions as what is the basic conflict in
“Hedda Gabler,” or where are the climaxes in “Love Under the Lindens,” or
analyze the prevailing mood of “Cherry Orchard”; it was really a matter of
learning to betray me. How I deplored now the exercises in sensual
simulation that I had so often seen her go through in our Beardsley parlor
when I would observe her from some strategic point while she, like a
hypnotic subject of a performer in a mystic rite, produced sophisticated
version of infantile make-believe by going through the mimetic actions of
hearing a moan in the dark, seeing for the first time a brand new young
stepmother, tasting something she hated, such as buttermilk, smelling
crushed grass in a lush orchard, or touching mirages of objects with her
sly, slender, girl-child hands. Among my papers I still have a mimeographed
sheet suggesting:
Tactile drill. Imagine Yourself picking up and holding: a pingpong
ball, an apple, a sticky date, a new flannel-fluffed tennis ball, a hot
potato, an ice cube, a kitten, a puppy, a horseshoe, a feather, a
flashlight.
Knead with your fingers the following imaginary things: a piece of
brad, india rubber, a friend’s aching temple, a sample of velvet, a rose
petal.
You are a blind girl. Palpate the face of: a Greek youth, Cyrano, Santa
Claus, a baby, a laughing faun, a sleeping stranger, your father.
But she had been so pretty in the weaving of those delicate spells, in
the dreamy performance of her enchantments and duties! On certain
adventurous evenings, in Beardsley, I also had her dance for me with the
promise of some treat or gift, and although these routine leg-parted leaps
of hers were more like those of a football cheerleader than like the
languorous and jerky motions of a Parisian petit rat, the rhythms of
her not quite nubile limbs had given me pleasure. But all that was nothing,
absolutely nothing, to the indescribable itch of rapture that her tennis
game produced in me–the teasing delirious feeling of teetering on the very
brink of unearthly order and splendor.
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Despite her advanced age, she was more of a nymphet than ever, with her
apricot-colored limbs, in her sub-teen tennis togs! Winged gentlemen! No
hereafter is acceptable if it does not produce her as she was then, in that
Colorado resort between Snow and Elphinstone, with everything right: the
white wide little-boy shorts, the slender waist, the apricot midriff, the
white breast-kerchief whose ribbons went up and encircled her neck to end
behind in a dangling knot leaving bare her gaspingly young and adorable
apricot shoulder blades with that pubescence and those lovely gentle bones,
and the smooth, downward-tapering back. Her cap had a white peak. Her racket
had cost me a small fortune. Idiot, triple idiot! I could have filmed her! I
would have had her now with me, before my eyes, in the projection room of my
pain and despair!
She would wait and relax for a bar or two of white-lined time before
going into the act of serving, and often bounced the ball once or twice, or
pawed the ground a little, always at ease, always rather vague about the
score, always cheerful as she so seldom was in the dark life she led at
home. Her tennis was the highest point to which I can imagine a young
creature bringing the art of make-believe, although I daresay, for her it
was the very geometry of basic reality.
The exquisite clarity of all her movements had its auditory counterpart
in the pure ringing sound of her every stroke. The ball when it entered her
aura of control became somehow whiter, its resilience somehow richer, and
the instrument of precision she used upon it seemed inordinately prehensile
and deliberate at the moment of clinging contact. Her form was, indeed, an
absolutely perfect imitation of absolutely top-notch tennis–without any
utilitarian results. As Edusa’s sister, Electra Gold, a marvelous young
coach, said to me once while I sat on a pulsating hard bench watching
Dolores Haze toying with Linda Hall (and being beaten by her): “Dolly has a
magnet in the center of her racket guts, but why the heck is she so polite?”
Ah, Electra, what did it matter, with such grace! I remember at the very
first game I watched being drenched with an almost painful convulsion of
beauty assimilation. My Lolita had a way of raising her bent left knee at
the ample and springy start of the service cycle when there would develop
and hang in the sun for a second a vital web of balance between toed foot,
pristine armpit, burnished arm and far back-flung racket, as she smiled up
with gleaming teeth at the small globe suspended so high in the zenith of
the powerful and graceful cosmos she had created for the express purpose of
falling upon it with a clean resounding crack of her golden whip.
It had, that serve of hers, beauty, directness, youth, a classical
purity of trajectory, and was, despite its spanking pace, fairly easy to
return, having as it did no twist or sting to its long elegant hop.
That I could have had all her strokes, all her enchantments,
immortalized in segments of celluloid, makes me moan today with frustration.
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They would have been so much more than the snapshots I burned! Her overhead
volley was related to her service as the envoy is to the ballade; for she
had been trained, my pet, to patter up at once to the net on her nimble,
vivid, white-shod feet. There was nothing to choose between her forehand and
backhand drives: they were mirror images of one another–my very loins still
tingle with those pistol reports repeated by crisp echoes and Electra’s
cries. One of the pearls of Dolly’s game was a short half-volley that Ned
Litam had taught her in California.
She preferred acting to swimming, and swimming to tennis; yet I insist
that had not something within her been broken by me–not that I realized it
then!–she would have had on the top of her perfect form the will to win,
and would have become a real girl champion. Dolores, with two rackets under
her arm, in Wimbledon. Dolores endorsing a Dromedary. Dolores turning
professional. Dolores acting a girl champion in a movie. Dolores and her
gray, humble, hushed husband-coach, old Humbert.
There was nothing wrong or deceitful in the spirit of her game–unless
one considered her cheerful indifference toward its outcome as the feint of
a nymphet. She who was so cruel and crafty in everyday life, revealed an
innocence, a frankness, a kindness of ball-placing, that permitted a
second-rate but determined player, no matter how uncouth and incompetent, to
poke and cut his way to victory. Despite her small stature, she covered the
one thousand and fifty-three square feet of her half of the court with
wonderful ease, once she had entered into the rhythm of a rally and as long
as she could direct that rhythm; but any abrupt attack, or sudden change of
tactics on her adversary’s part, left her helpless. At match point, her
second serve, which–rather typically–was even stronger and more stylish
than her first (for she had none of the inhibitions that cautious winners
have), would strike vibrantly the hard-cord of the net–and ricochet out of
court. The polished gem of her dropshot was snapped up and put away by an
opponent who seemed four-legged and wielded a crooked paddle. Her dramatic
drives and lovely volleys would candidly fall at his feet. Over and over
again she would land an easy one into the net–and merrily mimic dismay by
drooping in a ballet attitude, with her forelocks hanging. So sterile were
her grace and whipper that she could not even win from panting me and my
old-fashioned lifting drive.
I suppose I am especially susceptible to the magic of games. In my
chess sessions with Gaston I saw the board as a square pool of limpid water
with rare shells and stratagems rosily visible upon the smooth tessellated
bottom, which to my confused adversary was all ooze and squid-cloud.
Similarly, the initial tennis coaching I had inflicted on Lolita–prior to
the revelations that came to her through the great Californian’s
lessons–remained in my mind as oppressive and distressful memories–not
only because she had been so hopelessly and irritatingly irritated by every
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suggestion of mine–but because the precious symmetry of the court instead
of reflecting the harmonies latent in her was utterly jumbled by the
clumsiness and lassitude of the resentful child I mistaught. Now things were
different, and on that particular day, in the pure air of Champion,
Colorado, on that admirable court at the foot of seep stone stairs leading
up to Champion Hotel where we had spent the night, I felt I could rest from
the nightmare of unknown betrayals within the innocence of her style, of her
soul, of her essential grace.
She was hitting hard and flat, with her usual effortless sweep, feeding
me deep skimming balls–all so rhythmically coordinated and overt as to
reduce my footwork to, practically, a swinging stroll–crack players will
understand what I mean. My rather heavily cut serve that I had been taught
by my father who had learned it from Decugis or Borman, old friends of his
and great champions, would have seriously troubled my Lo, had I really tried
to trouble her. But who would upset such a lucid dear? Did I ever mention
that her bare arm bore the 8 of vaccination? That I loved her hopelessly?
That she was only fourteen?
An inquisitive butterfly passed, dipping, between us.
Two people in tennis shorts, a red-haired fellow only about eight years
my junior, and an indolent dark girl with a moody mouth and hard eyes, about
two years Lolita’s senior, appeared from nowhere. As is common with dutiful
tyros, their rackets were sheathed and framed, and they carried them not as
if they were the natural and comfortable extensions of certain specialized
muscles, but hammers or blunderbusses or whimbles, or my own dreadful
cumbersome sins. Rather unceremoniously seating themselves near my precious
coat, on a bench adjacent to the court, they fell to admiring very vocally a
rally of some fifty exchanges that Lo innocently helped me to foster and
uphold–until there occurred a syncope in the series causing her to gasp as
her overhead smash went out of court, whereupon she melted into winsome
merriment, my golden pet.
I felt thirsty by then, and walked to the drinking fountain; there Red
approached me and in all humility suggested a mixed double. “I am Bill
Mead,” he said. “And that’s Fay Page, actress. Maffy On Say”–he added
(pointing with his ridiculously hooded racket at polished Fay who was
already talking to Dolly). I was about to reply “Sorry, but–” (for I hate
to have my filly involved in the chops and jabs of cheap bunglers), when a
remarkably melodious cry diverted my attention: a bellboy was tripping down
the steps from the hotel to our court and making me signs. I was wanted, if
you please, on an urgent long distance call–so urgent in fact that the line
was being held for me. Certainly. I got into my coat (inside pocket heavy
with pistol) and told Lo I would be back in a minute. She was picking up a
ball–in the continental foot-racket way which was one of the few nice
things I had taught her,–and smiled–she smiled at me!
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An awful calm kept my heart afloat as I followed the boy up to the
hotel. This, to use an American term, in which discovery, retribution,
torture, death, eternity appear in the shape of a singularly repulsive
nutshell, was it. I had left her in mediocre hands, but it hardly
mattered now. I would fight, of course. Oh, I would fight. Better destroy
everything than surrender her. Yes, quite a climb.
At the desk, dignified, Roman-nosed man, with, I suggest, a very
obscure past that might reward investigation, handed me a message in his own
hand. The line had not been held after all. The note said:
“Mr. Humbert. The head of Birdsley (sic!) School called. Summer
residence–Birdsley 2-8282. Please call back immediately. Highly important.”
I folded myself into a booth, took a little pill, and four about twenty
minutes tussled with space-spooks. A quartet of propositions gradually
became audible: soprano, there was no such number in Beardsley; alto, Miss
Pratt was on her way to England; tenor, Beardsley School had not telephoned;
bass, they could not have done so, since nobody knew I was, that particular
day, in Champion, Colo. Upon my stinging him, the Roman took the trouble to
find out if there had been a long distance call. There had been none. A fake
call from some local dial was not excluded. I thanked him. He said: You bet.
After a visit to the purling men’s room and a stiff drink at the bar, I
started on my return march. From the very first terrace I saw, far below, on
the tennis court which seemed the size of a school child’s ill-wiped slate,
golden Lolita playing in a double. She moved like a fair angel among three
horrible Boschian cripples. One of these, her partner, while changing sides,
jocosely slapped her on her behind with his racket. He had a remarkably
round head and wore incongruous brown trousers. There was a momentary
flurry–he saw me, and throwing away his racket–mine–scuttled up the
slope. He waved his wrists and elbows in a would-be comical imitation of
rudimentary wings, as he climbed, blow-legged, to the street, where his gray
car awaited him. Next moment he and the grayness were gone. When I came
down, the remaining trio were collecting and sorting out the balls.
“Mr. Mead, who was that person?”
Bill and Fay, both looking very solemn, shook their heads.
That absurd intruder had butted in to make up a double, hadn’t he,
Dolly?
Dolly. The handle of my racket was still disgustingly warm. Before
returning to the hotel, I ushered her into a little alley half-smothered in
fragrant shrubs, with flowers like smoke, and was about to burst into ripe
sobs and plead with her imperturbed dream in the most abject manner for
clarification, no matter how meretricious, of the slow awfulness enveloping
me, when we found ourselves behind the convulsed Mead twosome–assorted
people, you know, meeting among idyllic settings in old comedies. Bill and
Fay were both weak with laughter–we had come at the end of their private
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joke. It did not really matter.
Speaking as if it really did not really matter, and assuming,
apparently, that life was automatically rolling on with all its routine
pleasures, Lolita said she would like to change into her bathing things, and
spend the rest of the afternoon at the swimming pool. It was a gorgeous day.
Lolita!
21
“Lo! Lola! Lolita!” I hear myself crying from a doorway into the sun,
with the acoustics of time, domed time, endowing my call and its tell-tale
hoarseness with such a wealth of anxiety, passion and pain that really it
would have been instrumental in wrenching open the zipper of her nylon
shroud had she been dead. Lolita! In the middle of a trim turfed terrace I
found her at last–she had run out before I was ready. Oh Lolita! There she
was playing with a damned dog, not me. The animal, a terrier of sorts, was
losing and snapping up again and adjusting between his jaws a wet little red
ball; he took rapid chords with his front paws on the resilient turf, and
then would bounce away. I had only wanted to see where she was, I could not
swim with my heart in that state, but who cared–and there she was, and
there was I, in my robe–and so I stopped calling; but suddenly something in
the pattern of her motions, as she dashed this way and that in her Aztec Red
bathing briefs and bra, struck me . . . there was an ecstasy, a madness
about her frolics that was too much of a glad thing. Even the dog seemed
puzzled by the extravagance of her reactions. I put a gentle hand to my
chest as I surveyed the situation. The turquoise blue swimming pool some
distance behind the lawn was no longer behind that lawn, but within my
thorax, and my organs swam in it like excrements in the blue sea water in
Nice. One of the bathers had left the pool and, half-concealed by the
peacocked shade of trees, stood quite still, holding the ends of the towel
around his neck and following Lolita with his amber eyes. There he stood, in
the camouflage of sun and shade, disfigured by them and masked by his own
nakedness, his damp black hair or what was left of it, glued to his round
head, his little mustache a humid smear, the wool on his chest spread like a
symmetrical trophy, his naval pulsating, his hirsute thighs dripping with
bright droplets, his tight wet black bathing trunks bloated and bursting
with vigor where his great fat bullybag was pulled up and back like a padded
shield over his reversed beasthood. And as I looked at his oval nut-brown
face, it dawned upon me that what I had recognized him by was the reflection
of my daughter’s countenance–the same beatitude and grimace but made
hideous by his maleness. And I also knew that the child, my child, knew he
was looking, enjoyed the lechery of his look and was putting on a show of
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gambol and glee, the vile and beloved slut. As she made for the ball and
missed it, she fell on her back, with her obscene young legs madly pedaling
in the air; I could sense the musk of her excitement from where I stood, and
then I saw (petrified with a kind of sacred disgust) the man close his eyes
and bare his small, horribly small and even, teeth as he leaned against a
tree in which a multitude of dappled Priaps shivered. Immediately afterwards
a marvelous transformation took place. He was no longer the satyr but a very
good-natured and foolish Swiss cousin, the Gustave Trapp I have mentioned
more than once, who used to counteract his “sprees” (he drank beer with
milk, the good swine) by feats of weight-lifting–tottering and grunting on
a lake beach with his otherwise very complete bathing suit jauntily stripped
from one shoulder. This Trapp noticed me from afar and working the
towel on his name walked back with false insouciance to the pool. And as if
the sun had gone out of the game, Lo slackened and slowly got up ignoring
the ball that the terrier placed before her. Who can say what heartbreaks
are caused in a dog by our discontinuing a romp? I started to say something,
and then sat down on the grass with a quite monstrous pain in my chest and
vomited a torrent of browns and greens that I had never remembered eating.
I saw Lolita’s eyes, and they seemed to be more calculating than
frightened. I heard her saying to a kind lady that her father was having a
fit. Then for a long time I lay in a lounge chair swallowing pony upon pony
of gin. And next morning I felt strong enough to drive on (which in later
years no doctor believed).
22
The two-room cabin we had ordered at Silver Spur Court, Elphinstone,
turned out to belong to the glossily browned pine-log kind that Lolita used
to be so fond of in the days of our carefree first journey; oh, how
different things were now! I am not referring to Trapp or Trapps. After
all–well, really . . . After all, gentlemen, it was becoming abundantly
clear that all those identical detectives in prismatically changing cars
were figments of my persecution mania, recurrent images based on coincidence
and chance resemblance. Soyons logiques, crowed the cocky Gallic part
of my brain–and proceeded to rout the notion of a Lolita-maddened salesman
or comedy gangster, with stooges, persecuting me, and hoaxing me, and
otherwise taking riotous advantage of my strange relations with the law. I
remember humming my panic away. I remember evolving even an explanation of
the “Birdsley” telephone call . . . But if I could dismiss Trapp, as I had
dismissed my convulsions on the lawn at Champion, I could do nothing with
the anguish of knowing Lolita to be so tantalizingly, so miserably
unattainable and beloved on the very even of a new era, when my alembics
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told me she should stop being a nymphet, stop torturing me.
An additional, abominable, and perfectly gratuitous worry was lovingly
prepared for me in Elphinstone. Lo had been dull and silent during the last
lap–two hundred mountainous miles uncontaminated by smoke-gray sleuths or
zigzagging zanies. She hardly glanced at the famous, oddly shaped,
splendidly flushed rock which jutted above the mountains and had been the
take-off for nirvana on the part of a temperamental show girl. The town was
newly built, or rebuilt, on the flat floor of a seven-thousand-foot-high
valley; it would soon bore Lo, I hoped, and we would spin on to California,
to the Mexican border, to mythical bays, saguaro desserts, fatamorganas.
Josè Lizzarrabengoa, as you remember, planned to take his Carmen to the
Etats Unis. I conjured up a Central American tennis competition in
which Dolores Haze and various Californian schoolgirl champions would
dazzlingly participate. Good-will tours on that smiling level eliminate the
distinction between passport and sport. Why did I hope we would be happy
abroad? A change of environment is the traditional fallacy upon which doomed
loves, and lungs, rely.
Mrs. Hays, the brisk, briskly rouged, blue-eyed widow who ran the motor
court, asked me if I were Swiss perchance, because her sister had married a
Swiss ski instructor. I was, whereas my daughter happened to be half Irish.
I registered, Hays gave me the key and a tinkling smile, and, still
twinkling, showed me where to park the car; Lo crawled out and shivered a
little: the luminous evening air was decidedly crisp. Upon entering the
cabin, she sat down on a chair at a card table, buried her face in the crook
of her arm and said she felt awful. Shamming, I thought, shamming, no doubt,
to evade my caresses; I was passionately parched; but she began to whimper
in an unusually dreary way when I attempted to fondle her. Lolita ill.
Lolita dying. Her skin was scalding hot! I took her temperature, orally,
then looked up a scribbled formula I fortunately had in a jotter and after
laboriously reducing the, meaningless to me, degrees Fahrenheit to the
intimate centigrade of my childhood, found she had 40.4, which at least made
sense. Hysterical little nymphs might, I knew, run up all kinds of
temperature–even exceeding a fatal count. And I would have given her a sip
of hot spiced wine, and two aspirins, and kissed the fever away, if, upon an
examination of her lovely uvula, one of the gems of her body, I had not seen
that it was a burning red. I undressed her. Her breath was bittersweet. Her
brown rose tasted of blood. She was shaking from head to toe. She complained
of a painful stiffness in the upper vertebrae–and I thought of
poliomyelitis as any American parent would. Giving up all hope of
intercourse, I wrapped her in a laprobe and carried her into the car. Kind
Mrs. Hays in the meantime had alerted the local doctor. “You are lucky it
happened here,” she said; for not only was Blue the best man in the
district, but the Elphinstone hospital was as modern as modern could be,
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despite its limited capacity. With a heterosexual Erlkænig in pursuit,
thither I drove, half-blinded by a royal sunset on the lowland side and
guided by a little old woman, a portable witch, perhaps his daughter, whom
Mrs. Haus had lent me, and whom I was never to see again. Dr. Blue, whose
learning, no doubt, was infinitely inferior to his reputation, assured me it
was a virus infection, and when I alluded to her comparatively recent flu,
curtly said this was another bug, he had forty such cases on his hands; all
of which sounded like the “ague” of the ancients. I wondered if I should
mention, with a casual chuckle, that my fifteen-year-old daughter had had a
minor accident while climbing an awkward fence with her boy friend, but
knowing I was drunk, I decided to withhold the information till later if
necessary. To an unsmiling blond bitch of a secretary I gave my daughter’s
age as “practically sixteen.” While I was not looking, my child was taken
away from me! In vain I insisted I be allowed to spend the night on a
“welcome” mat in a corner of their damned hospital. I ran up
constructivistic flights of stairs, I tried to trace my darling so as to
tell her she had better not babble, especially if she felt as lightheaded as
we all did. At one point, I was rather dreadfully rude to a very young and
very cheeky nurse with overdeveloped gluteal parts and blazing black
eyes–of Basque descent, as I learned. Her father was an imported shepherd,
a trainer of sheep dogs. Finally, I returned to the car and remained in it
for I do not know how many hours, hunched up in the dark, stunned by my new
solitude, looking out open-mouthed now at the dimly illumined, very square
and low hospital building squatting in the middle of its lawny block, now up
at the wash of stars and the jagged silvery ramparts of the haute
montagne where at the moment Mary’s father, lonely Joseph Lore was
dreaming of Oloron, Lagore, Rolas–que sais-je!–or seducing a ewe.
Such-like fragrant vagabond thoughts have been always a solace to me in
times of unusual stress, and only when, despite liberal libations, I felt
fairly numbed by the endless night, did I think of driving back to the
motel. The old woman had disappeared, and I was not quite sure of my way.
Wide gravel roads criss-crossed drowsy rectangular shadows. I made out what
looked like the silhouette of gallows on what was probably a school
playground; and in another wastelike black there rose in domed silence the
pale temple of some local sect. I found the highway at last, and then the
motel, where millions of so-called “millers,” a kind of insect, were
swarming around the neon contours of “No Vacancy”; and, when, at 3 a.m.,
after one of those untimely hot showers which like some mordant only help to
fix a man’s despair and weariness, I lay on her bed that smelled of
chestnuts and roses, and peppermint, and the very delicate, very special
French perfume I latterly allowed her to use, I found myself unable to
assimilate the simple fact that for the first time in two years I was
separated from my Lolita. All at once it occurred to me that her illness was
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somehow the development of a theme–that it had the same taste and tone as
the series of linked impressions which had puzzled and tormented me during
our journey; I imagined that secret agent, or secret lover, or prankster, or
hallucination, or whatever he was, prowling around the hospital–and Aurora
had hardly “warmed her hands,” as the pickers of lavender way in the country
of my birth, when I found myself trying to get into that dungeon again,
knocking upon its green doors, breakfastless, stool-less, in despair.
This was Tuesday, and Wednesday or Thursday, splendidly reacting like
the darling she was to some “serum” (sparrow’s sperm or dugong’s dung), she
was much better, and the doctor said that in a couple of days she would be
“skipping” again.
Of the eight times I visited her, the last one alone remains sharply
engraved on my mind. It had been a great feat to come for I felt all
hollowed out by the infection that by then was at work on me too. None will
know the strain it was to carry that bouquet, that load of love, those books
that I had traveled sixty miles to buy: Browning’s Dramatic Works, The
history of Dancing, Clowns and Columbines, The Russian Ballet, Flowers of
the Rockies, the Theatre Guild Anthology, Tennis by Helen Wills, who had
won the National Junior Girl Singles at the age of fifteen. As I was
staggering up to the door of my daughter’s thirteen-dollar-a day private
room, Mary Lore, the beastly young part-time nurse who had taken an
unconcealed dislike to me, emerged with a finished breakfast tray, placed it
with a quick crash on a chair in the corridor, and, fundament jigging, shot
back into the room–probably to warn her poor little Dolores that the
tyrannical old father was creeping up on crepe soles, with books and
bouquet: the latter I had composed of wild flowers and beautiful leaves
gathered with my own gloved hands on a mountain pass at sunrise (I hardly
slept at all that fateful week).
Feeding my Carmencita well? Idly I glanced at the tray. On a
yolk-stained plate there was a crumpled envelope. It had contained
something, since one edge was torn, but there was no address on it–nothing
at all, save a phony armorial design with “Ponderosa Lodge” in green
letters; thereupon I performed a chassè-croisè with Mary, who was in
the act of bustling out again–wonderful how fast they move and how little
they do, those rumpy young nurses. She glowered at the envelope I had put
back, uncrumpled.
“You better not touch,” she said, nodding directionally. “Could burn
your fingers.”
Below my dignity to rejoin. All I said was:
“Je croyais que c’ètait un bill–not a billet doux.”
Then, entering the sunny room, to Lolita: “Bonjour, mon petit.”
“Dolores,” said Mary Lore, entering with me, past me, though me, the
plump whore, and blinking, and starting to fold very rapidly a white flannel
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blanket as she blinked: “Dolores, your pappy thinks you are getting letters
from my boy friend. It’s me (smugly tapping herself on the small gilt cross
she wore) gets them. And my pappy can parlay-voo as well as yours.”
She left the room. Dolores, so rosy and russet, lips freshly painted,
hair brilliantly brushed, bare arms straightened out on neat coverleat, lay
innocently beaming at me or nothing. On the bed table, next to a paper
napkin and a pencil, her topaz ring burned in the sun.
“what gruesome funeral flowers,” she said. “Thanks all the same. But do
you mind very much cutting out the French? It annoys everybody.”
Back at the usual rush came the ripe young hussy, reeking of urine and
garlic, with the Desert News, which her fair patient eagerly
accepted, ignoring the sumptuously illustrated volumes I had brought.
“My sister Ann,” said Marry (topping information with afterthought),
“works at the Ponderosa place.”
Poor Bluebeard. Those brutal brothers. Est-ce que tu ne m’aimes
plus, ma Carmen? She never had. At the moment I knew my love was as
hopeless as ever–and I also knew the two girls were conspirators, plotting
in Basque, or Zemfirian, against my hopeless love. I shall go further and
say that Lo was playing a double game since she was also fooling sentimental
Mary whom she had told, I suppose, that she wanted to dwell with her
fun-loving young uncle and not with cruel melancholy me. And another nurse
whom I never identified, and the village idiot who carted cots and coffins
into the elevator, and the idiotic green love birds in a cage in the waiting
room–all were in the plot, the sordid plot. I suppose Mary thought comedy
father Professor Humbertoldi was interfering with the romance between
Dolores and her father-substitute, roly-poly Romeo (for you were
rather lardy, you know, Rom, despite all that “snow” and “joy juice”).
My throat hurt. I stood, swallowing, at the window and stared at the
mountains, at the romantic rock high up in the smiling plotting sky.
“My Carmen,” I said (I used to call her that sometimes), “we shall
leave this raw sore town as soon as you get out of bed.”
“Incidentally, I want all my clothes,” said the gitanilla, humping up
her knees and turning to another page.
“. . . Because, really,” I continued, “there is no point in staying
here.”
“There is no point in staying anywhere,” said Lolita.
I lowered myself into a cretonne chair and, opening the attractive
botanical work, attempted, in the fever-humming hush of the room, to
identify my flowers. This proved impossible. Presently a musical bell softly
sounded somewhere in the passage.
I do not think they had more than a dozen patients (three or four were
lunatics, as Lo had cheerfully informed me earlier) in that show place of a
hospital, and the staff had too much leisure. However–likewise for reasons
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of show–regulations were rigid. It is also true that I kept coming at the
wrong hours. Not without a secret flow of dreamy malice, visionary
Mary (next time it will be une belle dame toute en bleu floating
through Roaring Gulch) plucked me by the sleeve to lead me out. I looked at
her hand; it dropped. As I was leaving, leaving voluntarily, Dolores Haze
reminded me to bring her next morning . . . She did not remember where the
various things she wanted were . . . “Bring me,” she cried (out of sight
already, door on the move, closing, closed), “the new gray suitcase and
Mother’s trunk”; but by next morning I was shivering, and boozing, and dying
nit he motel bed she had used for just a few minutes, and the best I could
do under the circular and dilating circumstances was to send the two bags
over with the widow’s beau, a robust and kindly trucker. I imagined Lo
displaying her treasures to Mary . . . No doubt, I was a little
delirious–and on the following day I was still a vibration rather than a
solid, for when I looked out the bathroom window at the adjacent lawn, I saw
Dolly’s beautiful young bicycle propped up there on its support, the
graceful front wheel looking away from me, as it always did, and a sparrow
perched on the saddle–but it was the landlady’s bike, and smiling a little,
and shaking my poor head over my fond fancies, I tottered back to my bed,
and lay as quiet as a saint–
Saint, forsooth! While brown Dolores,
On a patch of sunny green
With Sanchicha reading stories
In a movie magazine–
–which was represented by numerous specimens wherever Dolores landed,
and there was some great national celebration in town judging by the
firecrackers, veritable bombs, that exploded all the time, and at five
minutes to two p.m. I heard the sound of whistling lips nearing the
half-opened door of my cabin, and then a thump upon it.
It was big Frank. He remained framed in the opened door, one hand on
its jamb, leaning forward a little.
Howdy. Nurse Lore was on the telephone. She wanted to know was I better
and would I come today?
At twenty paces Frank used to look a mountain of health; at five, as
now, he was a ruddy mosaic of scars–had been blown through a wall overseas;
but despite nameless injuries he was able to man a tremendous truck, fish,
hunt, drink, and buoyantly dally with roadside ladies. That day, either
because it was such a great holiday, or simply because he wanted to divert a
sick man, he had taken off the glove he usually wore on his left hand (the
one pressing against the side of the door) and revealed to the fascinated
sufferer not only an entire lack of fourth and fifth fingers, but also a
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naked girl, with cinnabar nipples and indigo delta, charmingly tattooed on
the back of his crippled hand, its index and middle digit making her legs
while his wrist bore her flower-crowned head. Oh, delicious . . . reclining
against the woodwork, like some sly fairy.
I asked him to tell Mary Lore I would stay in bed all day and would get
into touch with my daughter sometime tomorrow if I felt probably Polynesian.
He noticed the direction of my gaze and made her right hip twitch
amorously.
“Okey-dokey,” big Frank sang out, slapped the jamb, and whistling,
carried my message away, and I went on drinking, and by morning the fever
was gone, and although I was as limp as a toad, I put on the purple dressing
gown over my maize yellow pajamas, and walked over to the office telephone.
Everything was fine. A bright voice informed me that yes, everything was
fine, my daughter had checked out the day before, around two, her uncle, Mr.
Gustave, had called for her with a cocker spaniel pup and a smile for
everyone, and a black Caddy Lack, and had paid Dolly’s bill in cash, and
told them to tell me I should not worry, and keep warm, they were at
Grandpa’s ranch as agreed.
Elphinstone was, and I hope still is, a very cute little town. It was
spread like a maquette, you know, with its neat greenwool trees and
red-roofed houses over the valley floor and I think I have alluded earlier
to its model school and temple and spacious rectangular blocks, some of
which were, curiously enough, just unconventional pastures with a mule or a
unicorn grazing in the young July morning mist. Very amusing: at one
gravel–groaning sharp turn I sideswiped a parked car but said to myself
telestically–and, telepathically (I hoped), to its gesticulating
owner–that I would return later, address Bird School, Bird, New Bird, the
gin kept my heart alive but bemazed my brain, and after some lapses and
losses common to dream sequences, I found myself in the reception room,
trying to beat up the doctor, and roaring at people under chairs, and
clamoring for Mary who luckily for her was not there; rough hands plucked at
my dressing gown, ripping off a pocket, and somehow I seem to have been
sitting on a bald brown-headed patient, whom I had mistaken for Dr. Blue,
and who eventually stood up, remarking with a preposterous accent: “Now, who
is nevrotic, I ask?”–and then a gaunt unsmiling nurse presented me with
seven beautiful, beautiful books and the exquisitely folded tartan
lap robe, and demanded a receipt; and in the sudden silence I became aware
of a policeman in the hallway, to whom my fellow motorist was pointing me
out, and meekly I signed the very symbolic receipt, thus surrendering my
Lolita to all those apes. But what else could I do? One simple and stark
thought stood out and this was: “Freedom for the moment is everything.” One
false move–and I might have been made to explain a life of crime. So I
simulated a coming out of a daze. To my fellow motorist I paid what he
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thought was fair. To Dr. Blue, who by then was stroking my hand, I spoke in
tears of the liquor I bolstered too freely a tricky but not necessarily
diseased heart with. To the hospital in general I apologized with a flourish
that almost bowled me over, adding however that I was not on particularly
good terms with the rest of the Humbert clan. To myself I whispered that I
still had my gun, and was still a free man–free to trace the fugitive, free
to destroy my brother.
23
A thousand-mile stretch of silk-smooth road separated Kasbeam, where,
to the best of my belief, the red fiend had been scheduled to appear for the
first time, and fateful Elphinstone which we had reached about a week before
Independence Day. The journey had taken up most of June for we had seldom
made more than a hundred and fifty miles per traveling day, spending the
rest of the time, up to five days in one case, at various stopping places,
all of them also prearranged, no doubt. It was that stretch, then, along
which the fiend’s spoor should be sought; and to this I devoted myself,
after several unmentionable days of dashing up and down the relentlessly
radiating roads in the vicinity of Elphinstone.
Imagine me, reader , with my shyness, my distaste for any ostentation,
my inherent sense of the comme il faut, imagine me masking the frenzy
of my grief with a trembling ingratiating smile while devising some casual
pretext to flip through the hotel register: “Oh,” I would say, “I am almost
positive that I stayed here once–let me look up the entries for
mid-June–no, I see I’m wrong after all–what a very quaint name for a home
town, Kawtagain. Thanks very much.” Or: “I had a customer staying here–I
mislaid his address–may I . . .?” And every once in a while, especially if
the operator of the place happened to be a certain type of gloomy male,
personal inspection of the books was denied me.
I have a memo here: between July 5 and November 18, when I returned to
Beardsley for a few days, I registered, if not actually stayed, at 342
hotels, motels and tourist homes. This figure includes a few registrations
between Chestnut and Beardsley, one of which yielded a shadow of the fiend
(“N. Petit, Larousse, Ill.”); I had to space and time my inquiries carefully
so as not to attract undue attention; and there must have been at least
fifty places where I merely inquired at the desk–but that was a futile
quest, and I preferred building up a foundation of verisimilitude and good
will by first paying for an unneeded room. My survey showed that of the 300
or so books inspected, at least 20 provided me with a clue: the loitering
fiend had stopped even more often than we, or else–he was quite capable of
that–he had thrown in additional registrations in order to keep me well
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furnished with derisive hints. Only in one case had he actually stayed at
the same motor court as we, a few paces from Lolita’s pillow. In some
instances he had taken up quarters in the same or in a neighboring block;
not infrequently he had lain in wait at an intermediate spot between two
bespoken points. How vividly I recalled Lolita, just before our departure
from Beardsley, prone on the parlor rug, studying tour books and maps, and
marking laps and stops with her lipstick!
I discovered at once that he had foreseen my investigations and had
planted insulting pseudonyms for my special benefit. At the very first motel
office I visited, Ponderosa Lodge, his entry, among a dozen obviously human
ones, read: Dr. Gratiano Forbeson, Mirandola, NY. Its Italian Comedy
connotations could not fail to strike me, of course. The landlady deigned to
inform me that the gentleman had been laid up for five days with a bad cold,
that he had left his car for repairs in some garage or other and that he had
checked out on the 4th of July. Yes, a girl called Ann Lore had worked
formerly at the Lodge, but was now married to a grocer in Cedar City. One
moonlit night I waylaid white-shoed Mary on a solitary street; an automaton,
she was about to shriek, but I managed to humanize her by the simple act of
falling on my knees and with pious yelps imploring her to help. She did not
know a thing, she swore. Who was this Gratiano Forbeson? She seemed to
waver. I whipped out a hundred-dollar bill. She lifted it to the light of
the moon. “He is your brother,” she whispered at last. I plucked the bill
out of her moon-cold hand, and spitting out a French curse turned and ran
away. This taught me to rely on myself alone. No detective could discover
the clues Trapp had tuned to my mind and manner. I could not hope, of
course, he would ever leave his correct name and address; but I did hope he
might slip on the glaze of his own subtlety, by daring, say, to introduce a
richer and more personal shot of color than strictly necessary, or by
revealing too much through a qualitative sum of quantitative parts which
revealed too little. In one thing he succeeded: he succeeded in thoroughly
enmeshing me and my thrashing anguish in his demoniacal game. With infinite
skill, he swayed and staggered, and regained an impossible balance, always
leaving me with the sportive hope–if I may use such a term in speaking of
betrayal, fury, desolation, horror and hate–that he might give himself away
next time. He never did–though coming damn close to it. We all admire the
spangled acrobat with classical grace meticulously walking his tight rope in
the talcum light; but how much rarer art there is in the sagging rope expert
wearing scarecrow clothes and impersonating a grotesque drunk! I
should know.
The clues he left did not establish his identity but they reflected his
personality, or at least a certain homogenous and striking personality; his
genre, his type of humor–at its best at leat–the tone of his brain, had
affinities with my own. He mimed and mocked me. His allusions were
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definitely highbrow. He was well-read. He knew French. he was versed in
logodaedaly and logomancy. He was an amateur of sex lore. He had a feminine
handwriting. He would change his name but he could not disguise, no matter
how he slanted them, his very peculiar t’s, w’s and l’s. Quelquepart Island
was one of his favorite residences. He did not use a fountain pen which
fact, as any psychoanalyst will tell you, meant that the patient was a
repressed undinist. One mercifully hopes there are water nymphs in the Styx.
His main trait was his passion for tantalization. Goodness, what a
tease the poor fellow was! He challenged my scholarship. I am sufficiently
proud of my knowing something to be modest about my not knowing all; and I
daresay I missed some elements in that cryprogrammic paper chase. What a
shiver of triumph and loathing shook my frail frame when, among the plain
innocent names in the hotel recorder, his fiendish conundrum would ejaculate
in my face! I noticed that whenever he felt his enigmas were becoming too
recondite, even for such a solver as I, he would lure me back with an easy
one. “Arsõne Lupin” was obvious to a Frenchman who remembered the detective
stories of his youth; and one hardly had to be a Coleridgian to appreciate
the trite poke of “A. Person, Porlock, England.” In horrible taste but
basically suggestive of a cultured man–not a policeman, not a common good,
not a lewd salesman–were such assumed names as “Arthur Rainbow”–plainly
the travestied author of Le Bateau Bleu–let me laugh a little too,
gentlemen–and “Morris Schmetterling,” of L’Oiseau Ivre fame
(touchè, reader!). The silly but funny “D. Orgon, Elmira, NY,” was
from Moliõre, of course, and because I had quite recently tried to interest
Lolita in a famous 18th-century play, I welcomed as an old friend “Harry
Bumper, Sheridan, Wyo.” An ordinary encyclopedia informed me who the
peculiar looking “Phineas Quimby, Lebanon, NH” was; and any good Freudian,
with a German name and some interest in religious prostitution, should
recognize at a glance the implication of “Dr. Kitzler, Eryx, Miss.” So far
so good. That sort of fun was shoddy but on the whole impersonal and thus
innocuous. Among entries that arrested my attention as undoubtable clues
per se but baffled me in respect to their finer points I do not care
to mention many since I feel I am groping in a border-land mist with verbal
phantoms turning, perhaps, into living vacationists. Who was “Johnny
Randall, Ramble, Ohio”? Or was he a real person who just happened to write a
hand similar to “N.S. Aristoff, Catagela, NY”? What was the sting in
“Catagela”? And what about “James Mavor Morell, Hoaxton, England”?
“Aristophanes,” “hoax”–fine, but what was I missing?
There was one strain running through all that pseudonymity which caused
me especially painful palpitations when I came across it. Such things as “G.
Trapp, Geneva, NY.” was the sign of treachery on Lolita’s part. “Aubrey
Beardsley, Quelquepart Island” suggested more lucidly than the garbled
telephone message had that the starting point of the affair should be looked
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for in the East. “Lucas Picador, Merrymay, Pa.” insinuated that my Carmen
had betrayed my pathetic endearments to the impostor. Horribly cruel,
forsooth, was “Will Brown, Dolores, Colo.” The gruesome “Harold Haze,
Tombstone, Arizona” (which at another time would have appealed to my sense
of humor) implied a familiarity with the girl’s past that in nightmare
fashion suggested for a moment that my quarry was an old friend of the
family, maybe an old flame of Charlotte’s, maybe a redresser of wrongs
(“Donald Quix, Sierra, Nev.”). But the most penetrating bodkin was the
anagramtailed entry in the register of Chestnut Lodge “Ted Hunter, Cane,
NH.”
The garbled license numbers left by all these Persons and Orgons and
Morells and Trapps only told me that motel keepers omit to check if guests’
cars are accurately listed. References–incompletely or incorrectly
indicated–to the cars the fiend had hired for short laps between Wace and
Elphinstone were of course useless; the license of the initial Aztec was a
shimmer of shifting numerals, some transposed, others altered or omitted,
but somehow forming interrelated combinations (such as “WS 1564” and “SH
1616,” and “Q32888” or “CU88322”) which however were so cunningly contrived
as to never reveal a common denominator.
It occurred to me that after he had turned that convertible over to
accomplices at Wace and switched to the stage-motor car system, his
successors might have been less careful and might have inscribed at some
hotel office the archtype of those interrelated figures. But if looking for
the fiend along a road I knew he had taken was such a complicated vague and
unprofitable business, what could I expect from any attempt to trace unknown
motorists traveling along unknown routes?
24
By the time I reached Beardsley, in the course of the harrowing
recapitulation I have now discussed at sufficient length, a complete image
had formed in my mind; and through the–always risky–process of elimination
I had reduced this image to the only concrete source that morbid cerebration
and torpid memory could give it.
Except for the Rev. Rigor Mortis (as the girls called him), and an old
gentleman who taught non-obligatory German and Latin, there were no regular
male teachers t Beardsley School. But on two occasions an art instructor on
the Beardsley College faculty had come over to show the schoolgirls magic
lantern pictures of French castles and nineteenth-century paintings. I had
wanted to attend those projections and talks, but Dolly, as was her wont,
had asked me not to, period. I also remembered that Gaston had referred to
that particular lecturer as a brilliant garãon; but that was all;
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memory refused to supply me with the name of the chateau-lover.
On the day fixed for the execution, I walked though the sleet across
the campus to the information desk in Maker Hall, Beardsley College. There I
learned that the fellow’s name was Riggs (rather like that of the minister),
that he was a bachelor, and that in ten minutes he would issue from the
“Museum” where he was having a class. In the passage leading to the
auditorium I sat on a marble bench of sorts donated by Cecilia Dalrymple
Ramble. As I waited there, in the prostatic discomfort, drunk,
sleep-starved, with my gun in my fist in my raincoat pocket, it suddenly
occurred to me that I was demented and was about to do something stupid.
There was not one chance in a million that Albert Riggs, Ass. Prof., was
hiding my Lolita at his Beardsley home, 24 Pritchard Road. He could not be
the villain. It was absolutely preposterous. I was losing my time and my
wits. He and she were in California and not here at all.
Presently, I noticed a vague commotion behind some white statues; a
door-not the one I had been staring at–opened briskly, and amid a bevy of
women students a baldish head and two bright brown eyes bobbed, advanced.
He was a total stranger to me but insisted we had met at a lawn party
at Beardsley School. How was my delightful tennis-playing daughter? He had
another class. He would be seeing me.
Another attempt at identification was less speedily resolved: through
an advertisement in one of Lo’s magazines I dared to get in touch with a
private detective, an ex-pugilist, and merely to give him some idea of the
method adopted by the fiend, I acquainted him with the kind of names
and addresses I had collected. He demanded a goodish deposit and for two
years–two years, reader!–that imbecile busied himself with checking those
nonsense data. I had long severed all monetary relations with him when he
turned up one day with the triumphant information that an eighty-year-old
Indian by the name of Bill Brown lived near Dolores, Colo.
25
This book is about Lolita; and now that I have reached the part which
(had I not been forestalled by another internal combustion martyr) might be
called “Dolorõs Disparue,” there would be little sense in analyzing
the three empty years that followed. While a few pertinent points have to be
marked, the general impression I desire to convey is of a side door crashing
open in life’s full flight, and a rush of roaring black time drowning with
its whipping wind the cry of lone disaster.
Singularly enough, I seldom if ever dreamed of Lolita as I remembered
her–as I saw her constantly and obsessively in my conscious mind during my
daymares and insomnias. More precisely: she did haunt my sleep but she
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appeared there in strange and ludicrous disguises as Valeria or Charlotte,
or a cross between them. That complex ghost would come to me, shedding shift
after shift, in an atmosphere of great melancholy and disgust, and would
recline in dull invitation on some narrow board or hard settee, with flesh
ajar like the rubber valve of a soccer ball’s bladder. I would bind myself,
dentures fractured or hopelessly mislaid, in horrible chambres
garnies where I would be entertained at tedious vivisecting parties that
generally ended with Charlotte or Valeria weeping in my bleeding arms and
being tenderly kissed by my brotherly lips in a dream disorder of
auctioneered Viennese bric-þ-brac, pity, impotence and the brown wigs of
tragic old women who had just been gassed.
One day I removed from the car and destroyed an accumulation of
teen-magazines. You know the sort. Stone age at heart; up to date, or at
least Mycenaean, as to hygiene. A handsome, very ripe actress with huge
lashes and a pulpy red underlip, endorsing a shampoo. Ads and fads. Young
scholars dote on plenty of pleats–que c’ètait loin, tout cela! It is
your hostess’ duty to provide robes. Unattached details take all the sparkle
out of your conversation. All of us have known “pickers”–one who picks her
cuticle at the office party. Unless he is very elderly or very important, a
man should remove his gloves before shaking hands with a woman. Invite
Romance by wearing the Exciting New Tummy Flattener. Trims tums, nips hips.
Tristram in Movielove. Yessir! The Joe-Roe marital enigma is making yaps
flap. Glamorize yourself quickly and inexpensively. Comics. Bad girl dark
hair fat father cigar; good girl red hair handsome daddums clipped mustache.
Or that repulsive strip with the big gagoon and his wife, a kiddoid gnomide.
Et moi qui t’offrais mon genie . . . I recalled the rather charming
nonsense verse I used to write her when she was a child: “nonsense,” she
used to say mockingly, “is correct.”
The Squirl and his Squirrel, the Rabs and their Rabbits
Have certain obscure and peculiar habits.
Male hummingbirds make the most exquisite rockets.
The snake when he walks holds his hands in his pockets. . .
Other things of hers were harder to relinquish. Up to the end of 1949,
I cherished and adored, and stained with my kisses and merman tears, a pair
of old sneakers, a boy’s shirt she had worn, some ancient blue jeans I found
in the trunk compartment, a crumpled school cap, suchlike wanton treasures.
Then, when I understood my mind was cracking, I collected those sundry
belongings, added to them what had been stored in Beardsley–a box of books,
her bicycle, old coats, galoshes–and on her fifteenth birthday mailed
everything as an anonymous gift to a home for orphaned girls on a windy
lake, on the Canadian border.
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It is just possible that had I gone to a strong hypnotist he might have
extracted from me and arrayed in a logical pattern certain chance memories
that I have threaded through my book with considerably more ostentation than
they present themselves with to my mind even now when I know what to seek in
the past. At the time I felt I was merely losing contact with reality; and
after spending the rest of the winter and most of the following spring in a
Quebec sanatorium where I had stayed before, I resolved first to settle some
affairs of mine in New York and then to proceed to California for a thorough
search there.
Here is something I composed in my retreat:
Wanted, wanted: Dolores Haze.
Hair: brown. Lips: scarlet.
Age: five thousand three hundred days.
Profession: none, or “starlet.”
Where are you hiding, Dolores Haze?
Why are you hiding, darling?
(I talk in a daze, I walk in a maze,
I cannot get out, said the starling).
Where are you riding, Dolores Haze?
What make is the magic carpet?
Is a Cream Cougar the present craze?
And where are you parked, my car pet?
Who is your hero, Dolores Haze?
Still one of those blue-caped star-men?
Oh the balmy days and the palmy bays,
And the cars, and the bars, my Carmen!
Oh Dolores, that juke-box hurts!
Are you still dancin’, darlin’?
(Both in worn levis, both in torn T-shirts,
And I, in my corner, snarlin’).
Happy, happy is gnarled McFate
Touring the States with a child wife,
Plowing his Molly in every State
Among the protected wild life.
My Dolly, my folly! Her eyes were vair,
And never closed when I kissed her.
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Know an old perfume called Soleil Vert?
Are you from Paris, mister?
L’autre soir un air froid d’opèra m’alita:
Son fèlè–bien fol est qui s’y fie!
Il neige, le dècor s’ècroule, Lolita!
Lolita, qu’ai-je fait de ta vie?
Dying, dying, Lolita Haze,
Of hate and remorse, I’m dying.
And again my hairy fist I raise,
And again I hear you crying.
Officer, officer, there they go–
In the rain, where that lighted store is!
And her socks are white, and I love her so,
And her name is Haze, Dolores.
Officer, officer, there they are–
Dolores Haze and her lover!
Whip out your gun and follow that car.
Now tumble out, and take cover.
Wanted, wanted: Dolores Haze.
Her dream-gray gaze never flinches.
Ninety pounds is all she weighs
With a height of sixty inches.
My car is limping, Dolores Haze,
And the last long lap is the hardest,
And I shall be dumped where the weed decays,
And the rest is rust and stardust.
By psychoanalyzing this poem, I notice it is really a maniac’s
masterpiece. The stark, stiff, lurid rhymes correspond very exactly to
certain perspectiveless and terrible landscapes and figures, and magnified
parts of landscapes and figures, as drawn by psychopaths in tests devised by
their astute trainers. I wrote many more poems. I immersed myself in the
poetry of others. But not for a second did I forget the load of revenge.
I would be a knave to say, and the reader a fool to believe, that the
shock of losing Lolita cured me of pederosis. My accursed nature could not
change, no matter how my love for her did. On playgrounds and beaches, my
sullen and stealthy eye, against my will, still sought out the flash of a
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nymphet’s limbs, the sly tokens of Lolita’s handmaids and rosegirls. But one
essential vision in me had withered: never did I dwell now on possibilities
of bliss with a little maiden, specific or synthetic, in some out-of-the-way
place; never did my fancy sink its fangs into Lolita’s sisters, far far
away, in the coves of evoked islands. That was all over, for the time
being at least. On the other hand, alas, two years of monstrous indulgence
had left me with certain habits of lust: I feared lest the void I lived in
might drive me to plunge into the freedom of sudden insanity when confronted
with a chance temptation in some lane between school and supper. Solitude
was corrupting me. I needed company and care. My heart was a hysterical
unreliable organ. This is how Rita enters the picture.
26
She was twice Lolita’s age and three quarters of mine: a very slight,
dark-haired, pale-skinned adult, weighing a hundred and five pounds, with
charmingly asymmetrical eyes, and angular, rapidly sketched profile, and a
most appealing ensellure to her supple back–I think she had some
Spanish or Babylonian blood. I picked her up one depraved May evening
somewhere between Montreal and New York, or more narrowly, between
Toylestown and Blake, at a darkishly burning bar under the sign of the
Tigermoth, where she was amiably drunk: she insisted we had gone to school
together, and she placed her trembling little hand on my ape paw. My senses
were very slightly stirred but I decided to give her a try; I did–and
adopted her as a constant companion. She was so kind, was Rita, such a good
sport, that I daresay she would have given herself to any pathetic creature
or fallacy, an old broken tree or a bereaved porcupine, out of sheer
chumminess and compassion.
When I first met her she had but recently divorced her third
husband–and a little more recently had been abandoned by her seventh
cavalier servant–the others, the mutables, were too numerous and
mobile to tabulate. Her brother was–and no doubt still is–a prominent,
pasty-faced, suspenders-and-painted-tie-wearing politician, mayor and
booster of his ball-playing, Bible-reading, grain-handling home town. For
the last eight years he had been paying his great little sister several
hundred dollars per month under the stringent condition that she would never
never enter great little Grainball City. She told me, with wails of wonder,
that for some God-damn reason every new boy friend of hers would first of
all take her Grainball-ward: it was a fatal attraction; and before she knew
what was what, she would find herself sucked into the lunar orbit of the
town, and would be following the flood-lit drive that encircled it–“going
round and round,” as she phrased it, “like a God-damn mulberry moth.”
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She had a natty little coupè; and in it we traveled to California so as
to give my venerable vehicle a rest. her natural speed was ninety. Dear
Rita! We cruised together for two dim years, from summer 1950 to summer
1952, and she was the sweetest, simplest, gentles, dumbest Rita imaginable.
In comparison to her, Valechka was a Schlegel, and Charlotte a Hegel. There
is no earthly reason why I should dally with her in the margin of this
sinister memoir, but let me say (hi, Rita–wherever you are, drunk or
hangoverish, Rita, hi!) that she was the most soothing, the most
comprehending companion that I ever had, and certainly saved me from the
madhouse. I told her I was trying to trace a girl and plug that girl’s
bully. Rita solemnly approved of the plan–and in the course of some
investigation she undertook on her own (without really knowing a thing),
around San Humbertino, got entangled with a pretty awful crook herself; I
had the devil of a time retrieving her–used and bruised but still cocky.
Then one day she proposed playing Russian roulette with my sacred automatic;
I said you couldn’t, it was not a revolver, and we struggled for it, until
at last it went off, touching off a very thin and very comical spurt of hot
water from the hole it made in the wall of the cabin room; I remember her
shrieks of laughter.
The oddly prepubescent curve of her back, her ricey skin, her slow
languorous columbine kisses kept me from mischief. It is not the artistic
aptitudes that are secondary sexual characters as some shams and shamans
have said; it is the other way around: sex is but the ancilla of art. One
rather mysterious spree that had interesting repercussions I must notice. I
had abandoned the search: the fiend was either in Tartary or burning away in
my cerebellum (the flames fanned by my fancy and grief) but certainly not
having Dolores Haze play champion tennis on the Pacific Coast. One
afternoon, on our way back East, in a hideous hotel, the kind where they
hold conventions and where labeled, fat, pink men stagger around, all first
names and business and booze–dear Rita and I awoke to find a third in our
room, a blond, almost albino, young fellow with white eyelashes and large
transparent ears, whom neither Rita nor I recalled having ever seen in our
sad lives. Sweating in thick dirty underwear, and with old army boots on, he
lay snoring on the double bed beyond my chaste Rita. One of his front teeth
was gone, amber pustules grew on his forehead. Ritochka enveloped her
sinuous nudity in my raincoat–the first thing at hand; I slipped on a pair
of candy-striped drawers; and we took stock of the situation. Five glasses
had been used, which in the way of clues, was an embarrassment of riches.
The door was not properly closed. A sweater and a pair of shapeless tan
pants lay on the floor. We shook their owner into miserable consciousness.
He was completely amnesic. In an accent that Rita recognized as pure
Brooklynese, he peevishly insinuated that somehow we had purloined his
(worthless) identity. We rushed him into his clothes and left him at the
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nearest hospital, realizing on the way that somehow or other after forgotten
gyrations, we ewer in Grainball. Half a year later Rita wrote the doctor for
news. Jack Humbertson as he had been tastelessly dubbed was still isolated
from his personal past. Oh Mnemosyne, sweetest and most mischievous of
muses!
I would not have mentioned this incident had it not started a chain of
ideas that resulted in my publishing in the Cantrip Review an essay
on “Mimir and Memory,” in which I suggested among other things that seemed
original and important to that splendid review’s benevolent readers, a
theory of perceptual time based on the circulation of the blood and
conceptually depending (to fill up this nutshell) on the mind’s being
conscious not only of matter but also of its own self, thus crating a
continuous spanning of two points (the storable future and the stored past).
In result of this venture–and in culmination of the impression made by my
previous travaux–I was called from New York, where Rita and I were
living in a little flat with a view of gleaming children taking shower baths
far below in a fountainous arbor of Central Park, to Cantrip College, four
hundred miles away, for one year. I lodged there, in special apartments for
poets and philosophers, from September 1951 to June 1952, while Rita whom I
preferred not to display vegetated–somewhat indecorously, I am afraid–in a
roadside inn where I visited her twice a week. Then she vanished–more
humanly than her predecessor had done: a month later I found her in the
local jail. She was trõs digne, had had her appendix removed, and
managed to convince me that the beautiful bluish furs she had been accused
of stealing from a Mrs. Roland MacCrum had really been a spontaneous, if
somewhat alcoholic, gift from Roland himself. I succeeded in getting her out
without appealing to her touchy brother, and soon afterwards we drove back
to Central Park West, by way of Briceland, where we had stopped for a few
hours the year before.
A curious urge to relive my stay there with Lolita had got hold of me.
I was entering a phase of existence where I had given up all hope of tracing
her kidnapper and her. I now attempted to fall back on old settings in order
to save what still could be saved in the way of souvenir, souvenir que me
veux-tu? Autumn was ringing in the air. To a post card requesting twin
beds Professor Hamburg got a prompt expression of regret in reply. They were
full up. They had one bathless basement room with four beds which they
thought I would not want. Their note paper was headed:
The Enchanted Hunters
Near Churches No Dogs
All legal beverages
I wondered if the last statement was true. All? Did they have for
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instance sidewalk grenadine? I also wondered if a hunter, enchanted or
otherwise, would not need a pointer more than a pew, and with a spasm of
pain I recalled a scene worthy of a great artist: petite nymphe
accroupie; but that silky cocker spaniel had perhaps been a baptized
one. No–I felt I could not endure the throes of revisiting that lobby.
There was a much better possibility of retrievable time elsewhere in soft,
rich-colored, autumnal Briceland. Leaving Rita in a bar, I made for the town
library. A twittering spinster was only too glad to help me disinter
mid-August 1947 from the bound Briceland Gazette, and presently, in a
secluded nook under a naked light, I was turning the enormous and fragile
pages of a coffin-black volume almost as big as Lolita.
Reader! Bruder! What a foolish Hamburg that Hamburg was! Since
his supersensitive system was loath to face the actual scene, he thought he
could at least enjoy a secret part of it–which reminds one of the tenth or
twentieth soldier in the raping queue who throws the girl’s black shawl over
her white face so as not to see those impossible eyes while taking his
military pleasure in the sad, sacked village. What I lusted to get
was the printed picture that had chanced to absorb my trespassing image
while the Gazette’s photographer was concentrating on Dr. Braddock
and his group. Passionately I hoped to find preserved the portrait of the
artist as a younger brute. An innocent camera catching me on my dark way to
Lolita’s bed–what a magnet for Mnemosyne! I cannot well explain the true
nature of that urge of mine. It was allied, I suppose, to that swooning
curiosity which impels one to examine with a magnifying glass bleak little
figures–still life practically, and everybody about to throw up–at an
early morning execution, and the patient’s expression impossible to make out
in the print. Anyway, I was literally gasping for breath, and one corner of
the book of doom kept stabbing me in the stomach while I scanned and skimmed
. . . Brute Force and Possessed were coming on Sunday, the
24th, to both theatres. Mr. Purdom, independent tobacco auctioneer, said
that ever since 1925 he had been an Omen Faustum smoker. Husky Hank and his
petite bride were to be the guests of Mr. and Mrs. Reginald G. Gore, 58
Inchkeith Ave. The size of certain parasites is one sixth of the host.
Dunkerque was fortified in the tenth century. Misses’ socks, 39 c. Saddle
Oxfords 3.98. Wine, wine, wine, quipped the author of Dark Age who
refused to be photographed, may suit a Persian bubble bird, but I say give
me rain, rain, rain on the shingle roof for roses and inspiration every
time. Dimples are caused by the adherence of the skin to the deeper tissues.
Greeks repulse a heavy guerrilla assault–and, ah, at last, a little figure
in white, and Dr. Braddock in black, but whatever spectral shoulder was
brushing against his ample form–nothing of myself could I make out.
I went to find Rita who introduced me with her vin triste smile
to a pocket-sized wizened truculently tight old man saying this was–what
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was the name again, son?–a former schoolmate of hers. He tried to retain
her, and in the slight scuffle that followed I hurt my thumb against his
hard head. In the silent painted part where I walked her and aired her a
little, she sobbed and said I would soon, soon leave her as everybody had,
and I sang her a wistful French ballad, and strung together some fugitive
rhymes to amuse her:
The place was called Enchanted Hunters. Query:
What Indian dyes, Diana, did thy dell
endorses to make of Picture Lake a very
blood bath of trees before the blue hotel?
She said: “Why blue when it is white, why blue for heaven’s sake?” and
started to cry again, and I marched her to the car, and we drove on to New
York, and soon she was reasonably happy again high up in the haze on the
little terrace of our flat. I notice I have somehow mixed up two events, my
visit with Rita to Briceland on our way to Carntrip, and our passing through
Briceland again on our way back to New York, but such suffusions of swimming
colors are not to be disdained by the artist in recollection.
27
My letterbox in the entrance hall belonged to the type that allows one
to glimpse something of its contents through a glassed slit. Several times
already, a trick of harlequin light that fell through the glass upon an
alien handwriting had twisted it into a semblance of Lolita’s script causing
me almost to collapse as I leant against an adjacent urn, almost my own.
Whenever that happened–whenever her lovely, childish scrawl was horribly
transformed into the dull hand of one of my few correspondents–I used to
recollect, with anguished amusement, the times in my trustful, pre-dolorian
past when I would be misled by a jewel-bright window opposite wherein my
lurking eye, the ever alert periscope of my shameful vice, would make out
from afar a half-naked nymphet stilled in the act of combing her
Alice-in-Wonderland hair. There was in the fiery phantasm a perfection which
made my wild delight also perfect, just because the vision was out of reach,
with no possibility of attainment to spoil it by the awareness of an
appended taboo; indeed, it may well be that the very attraction immaturity
has for me lies not so much in the limpidity of pure young forbidden fairy
child beauty as in the security of a situation where infinite perfections
fill the gap between the little given and the great promised–the great
rosegray never-to-be-had. Mes fenétres! Hanging above blotched sunset
and welling night, grinding my teeth, I would crowd all the demons of my
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desire against the railing of a throbbing balcony: it would be ready to take
off in the apricot and black humid evening; did take off–whereupon the
lighted image would move and Even would revert to a rib, and there would be
nothing in the window but an obese partly clad man reading the paper.
Since I sometimes won the race between my fancy and nature’s reality,
the deception was bearable. Unbearable pain began when chance entered the
fray and deprived me of the smile meant for me. “Savez-vous qu’þ dix ans
ma petite ètait folle de vous?” said a woman I talked to at a tea in
Paris, and the petite had just married, miles away, and I could not
even remember if I had ever noticed her in that garden, next to those tennis
courts, a dozen years before. And now likewise, the radiant foreglimpse, the
promise of reality, a promise not only to be simulated seductively but also
to be nobly held–all this, chance denied me–chance and a change to smaller
characters on the pale beloved writer’s part. My fancy was both
Proustianized and Procrusteanized; for that particular morning, late in
September 1952, as I had come down to grope for my mail, the dapper and
bilious janitor with whom I was on execrable terms started to complain that
a man who had seen Rita home recently had been “sick like a dog” on the
front steps. In the process of listening to him and tipping him, and then
listening to a revised and politer version of the incident, I had the
impression that one of the two letters which that blessed mail brought was
from Rita’s mother, a crazy little woman, whom we had once visited on Cape
Cod and who kept writing me to my various addresses, saying how wonderfully
well matched her daughter and I were, and how wonderful it would be if we
married; the other letter which I opened and scanned rapidly in the elevator
was from John Farlow.
I have often noticed that we are inclined to endow our friends with the
stability of type that literary characters acquire in the reader’s mind. No
matter how many times we reopen “King Lear,” never shall we find the good
king banging his tankard in high revelry, all woes forgotten, at a jolly
reunion with all three daughters and their lapdogs. Never will Emma rally,
revived by the sympathetic salts in Flaubert’s father’s timely tear.
Whatever evolution this or that popular character has gone through between
the book covers, his fate is fixed in our minds, and, similarly, we expect
our friends to follow this or that logical and conventional pattern we have
fixed for them. Thus X will never compose the immortal music that would
clash with the second-rate symphonies he has accustomed us to. Y will never
commit murder. Under no circumstances can Z ever betray us. We have it all
arranged in our minds, and the less often we see a particular person the
more satisfying it is to check how obediently he conforms to our notion of
him every time we hear of him. Any deviation in the fates we have ordained
would strike us as not only anomalous but unethical. We would prefer not to
have known at all our neighbor, the retired hot-dog stand operator, if it
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turns out he has just produced the greatest book of poetry his age has seen.
I am saying all this in order to explain how bewildered I was by
Farlow’s hysterical letter. I knew his wife had died but I certainly
expected him to remain, throughout a devout widowhood, the dull, sedate and
reliable person he had always been. Now he wrote that after a brief visit to
the U.S. he had returned to South America and had decided that whatever
affairs he had controlled at Ramsdale he would hand over to Jack Windmuller
of that town, a lawyer whom we both knew. He seemed particularly relieved to
get rid of the Haze “complications.” He had married a Spanish girl. He had
stopped smoking and had gained thirty pounds. She was very young and a ski
champion. They were going to India for their honeymonsoon. Since he was
“building a family” as he put it, he would have no time henceforth for my
affairs which he termed “very strange and very aggravating.” Busybodies–a
whole committee of them, it appeared–had informed him that the whereabouts
of little Dolly Haze were unknown, and that I was living with a notorious
divorcee in California. His father-in-law was a count, and exceedingly
wealthy. The people who had been renting the Haze house for some years now
wished to buy it. He suggested that I better produce Dolly quick. he had
broken his leg. He enclosed a snapshot of himself and a brunette in white
wool beaming at each other among the snows of Chile.
I remember letting myself into my flat and starting to say: Well, at
least we shall now track them down–when the other letter began talking to
me in a small matter-of-fact voice:
Dear Dad:
How’s everything? I’m married. I’m going to have a baby. I guess he’s
going to be a big one. I guess he’ll come right for Christmas. This is a
hard letter to write. I’m going nuts because we don’t have enough to pay our
debts and get out of here. Dick is promised a big job in Alaska in his very
specialized corner of the mechanical field, that’s all I know about it but
it’s really grand. Pardon me for withholding our home address but you may
still be mad at me, and Dick must not know. This town is something. You
can’t see the morons for the smog. Please do send us a check, Dad. We could
manage with three or four hundred or even less, anything is welcome, you
might sell my old things, because once we go there the dough will just start
rolling in. Writ, please. I have gone through much sadness and hardship.
Yours expecting,
Dolly (Mrs. Richard F. Schiller)
28
I was again on the road, again at the wheel of the old blue sedan,
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again alone. Rita had still been dead to the world when I read that letter
and fought the mountains of agony it raised within me. I had glanced at her
as she smiled in her sleep and had kissed her on her moist brow, and had
left her forever, with a note of tender adieu which I taped to her
navel–otherwise she might not have found it.
“Alone” did I say? Pas tout þ fait. I had my little black chum
with me, and as soon as I reached a secluded spot, I rehearsed Mr. Richard
F. Schiller’s violent death. I had found a very old and very dirty gray
sweater of mine in the back of the car, and this I hung up on a branch, in a
speechless glade, which I had reached by a wood road from the now remote
highway. The carrying out of the sentence was a little marred by what seemed
to me a certain stiffness in the play of the trigger, and I wondered if I
should get some oil for the mysterious thing but decided I had no time to
spare. Back into the car went the old dead sweater, now with additional
perforations, and having reloaded warm Chum, I continued my journey.
The letter was dated September 18, 1952 (this was September 22), and
the address she gave was “General Delivery, Coalmont” (not “Va.,” not “Pa.,”
not “Tenn.”–and not Coalmont, anyway–I have camouflaged everything, my
love). Inquiries showed this to be a small industrial community some eight
hundred miles from New York City. At first I planned to drive all day and
all night, but then thought better of it and rested for a couple of hours
around dawn in a motor court room, a few miles before reaching the town. I
had made up my mind that the fiend, this Schiller, had been a car salesman
who had perhaps got to know my Lolita by giving her a ride in Beardsley–the
day her bike blew a tire on the way to Miss Emperor–and that he had got
into some trouble since then. The corpse of the executed sweater, no matter
how I changed its contours as it lay on the back seat of the car, had kept
revealing various outlines pertaining to Trapp-Schiller–the grossness and
obscene bonhomie of his body, and to counteract this taste of coarse
corruption I resolved to make myself especially handsome and smart as I
pressed home the nipple of my alarm clock before it exploded at the set hour
of six a.m. Then, with the stern and romantic care of a gentleman about to
fight a duel, I checked the arrangement of my papers, bathed and perfumed my
delicate body, shaved my face and chest, selected a silk shirt and clean
drawers, pulled on transparent taupe socks, and congratulated myself for
having with me in my trunk some very exquisite clothes–a waistcoat with
nacreous buttons, for instance, a pale cashmere tie and so on.
I was not able, alas, to hold my breakfast, but dismissed that
physicality as a trivial contretemps, wiped my mouth with a gossamer
handkerchief produced from my sleeve, and, with a blue block of ice for
heart, a pill on my tongue and solid death in my hip pocket, I stepped
neatly into a telephone booth in Coalmont (Ah-ah-ah, said its little door)
and rang up the only Schiller–Paul, Furniture–to be found in the battered
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book. Hoarse Paul told me he did know a Richard, the son of a cousin of his,
and his address was, let me see, 10 Killer Street (I am not going very far
for my pseudonyms). Ah-ah-ah, said the little door.
At 10 Killer Street, a tenement house, I interviewed a number of
dejected old people and two long-haired strawberry-blond incredibly grubby
nymphets (rather abstractly, just for the heck of it, the ancient beast in
me was casting about for some lightly clad child I might hold against me for
a minute, after the killing was over and nothing mattered any more, and
everything was allowed). Yes, Dick Skiller had lived there, but had moved
when he married. Nobody knew his address. “They might know at the store,”
said a bass voice from an open manhole near which I happened to be standing
with the two thin-armed, barefoot little girls and their dim grandmothers. I
entered the wrong store and a wary old Negro shook his head even before I
could ask anything. I crossed over to a bleak grocery and there, summoned by
a customer at my request, a woman’s voice from some wooden abyss in the
floor, the manhole’s counterpart, cried out: Hunter Road, last house.
Hunter Road was miles away, in an even more dismal district, all dump
and ditch, and wormy vegetable garden, and shack, and gray drizzle, and red
mud, and several smoking stacks in the distance. I stopped at the last
“house”–a clapboard shack, with two or three similar ones farther away from
the road and a waste of withered weeds all around. Sounds of hammering came
from behind the house, and for several minutes I sat quite still in my old
car, old and frail, at the end of my journey, at my gray goal, finis,
my friends, finis, my friends. The time was around two. My pulse was
40 one minute and 100 the next. The drizzle crepitated against the hood of
the car. My gun had migrated to my right trouser pocket. A nondescript cur
came out from behind the house, stopped in surprise, and started
good-naturedly woof-woofing at me, his eyes slit, his shaggy belly all
muddy, and then walked about a little and woofed once more.
29
I got out of the car and slammed its door. How matter-of-fact, how
square that slam sounded in the void of the sunless day! Woof,
commented the dog perfunctorily. I pressed the bell button, it vibrated
through my whole system. Personne. Je resonne. Repersonne. From what
depth this re-nonsense? Woof, said the dog. A rush and a shuffle, and
woosh-woof went the door.
Couple of inches taller. Pink-rimmed glasses. New, heaped-up hairdo,
new ears. How simple! The moment, the death I had kept conjuring up for
three years was as simple as a bit of dry wood. She was frankly and hugely
pregnant. Her head looked smaller (only two seconds had passed really, but
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let me give them as much wooden duration as life can stand), and her
pale-freckled cheeks were hollowed, and her bare shins and arms had lost all
their tan, so that the little hairs showed. She wore a brown, sleeveless
cotton dress and sloppy felt slippers.
“We–e–ell!” she exhaled after a pause with all the emphasis of wonder
and welcome.
“Husband at home?” I croaked, fist in pocket.
I could not kill her, of course, as some have thought. You see,
I loved her. It was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever
sight.
“Come in,” she said with a vehement cheerful note. Against the
splintery deadwood of the door, Dolly Schiller flattened herself as best she
could (even rising on tiptoe a little) to let me pass, and was crucified for
a moment, looking down, smiling down at the threshold, hollow-cheeked with
round pommettes, her watered-milk-white arms outspread on the wood. I
passed without touching her bulging babe. Dolly-smell, with a faint fried
addition. My teeth chattered like an idiot’s. “No, you stay out” (to the
dog). She closed the door and followed me and her belly into the dollhouse
parlor.
“Dick’s down there,” she said pointing with an invisible tennis racket,
inviting my gaze to travel from the drab parlor-bedroom where we stood,
right across the kitchen, and through the back doorway where, in a rather
primitive vista, a dark-haired young stranger in overalls, instantaneously
reprieved, was perched with his back to me on a ladder fixing something near
or upon the shack of his neighbor, a plumper fellow with only one arm, who
stood looking up.
This pattern she explained from afar, apologetically (“Men will be
men”); should she call him in?
No.
Standing in the middle of the slanting room and emitting questioning
“hm’s,” she made familiar Javanese gestures with her wrists and hands,
offering me, in a brief display of humorous courtesy, to choose between a
rocker and the divan (their bed after ten p.m.). I say “familiar” because
one day she had welcomed me with the same wrist dance to her party in
Beardsley. We both sat down on the divan. Curious: although actually her
looks had faded, I definitely realized, so hopelessly late in the day, how
much she looked–had always looked–like Botticelli’s russet Venus–the same
soft nose, the same blurred beauty. In my pocket my fingers gently let go
and repacked a little at the tip, within the handkerchief it was nested in,
my unused weapon.
“that’s not the fellow I want,” I said.
The diffuse look of welcome left her eyes. Her forehead puckered as in
the old bitter days:
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“Not who?”
“Where is he? Quick!”
“Look,” she said, inclining her head to one side and shaking it in that
position. “Look, you are not going to bring that up.”
“I certainly am,” I said, and for a moment–strangely enough the only
merciful, endurable one in the whole interview–we were bristling at each
other as if she were still mine.
A wise girl, she controlled herself.
Dick did not know a thing of the whole mess. He thought I was her
father. He thought she had run away from an upper-class home just to wash
dishes in a diner. He believed anything. Why should I want to make things
harder than they were by raking up all that muck?
But, I said, she must be sensible, she must be a sensible girl (with
her bare drum under that thin brown stuff), she must understand that if she
expected the help I had come to give, I must have at least a clear
comprehension of the situation.
“Come, his name!”
She thought I had guessed long ago. It was (with a mischievous and
melancholy smile) such a sensational name. I would never believe it. She
could hardly believe it herself.
His name, my fall nymph.
It was so unimportant, she said. She suggested I skip it. Would I like
a cigarette?
No. His name.
She shook her head with great resolution. She guessed it was too late
to raise hell and I would never believe the unbelievably unbelievable–
I said I had better go, regards, nice to have seen her.
She said really it was useless, she would never tell, but on the other
hand, after all–“Do you really want to know who it was? Well, it was–”
And softly, confidentially, arching her thin eyebrows and puckering her
parched lips, she emitted, a little mockingly, somewhat fastidiously, not
untenderly, in a kind of muted whistle, the name that the astute reader has
guessed long ago.
Waterproof. Why did a flash from Hourglass Lake cross my consciousness?
I, too, had known it, without knowing it, all along. There was no shock, no
surprise. Quietly the fusion took place, and everything fell into order,
into the pattern of branches that I have woven throughout this memoir with
the express purpose of having the ripe fruit fall at the right moment; yes,
with the express and perverse purpose of rendering–she was talking but I
sat melting in my golden peace–of rendering that golden and monstrous peace
through the satisfaction of logical recognition, which my most inimical
reader should experience now.
She was, as I say, talking. It now came in a relaxed flow. He was the
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only man she had ever been crazy about. What about Dick? Oh, Dick was a
lamb, they were quite happy together, but she meant something different. And
I had never counted, of course?
She considered me as if grasping all at once the incredible–and
somehow tedious, confusing and unnecessary–fact that the distant, elegant,
slender, forty-year-old valetudinarian in velvet coat sitting beside her had
known and adored every pore and follicle of her pubescent body. In her
washed-out gray eyes, strangely spectacled, our poor romance was for a
moment reflected, pondered upon, and dismissed like a dull party, like a
rainy picnic to which only the dullest bores had come, like a humdrum
exercise, like a bit of dry mud caking her childhood.
I just managed to jerk my knee out of the range of a sketchy tap–one
of her acquired gestures.
She asked me not to be dense. The past was the past. I had been a good
father, she guessed–granting me that. Proceed, Dolly Schiller.
Well, did I know that he had known her mother? That he was practically
an old friend? That he had visited with his uncle in Ramsdale?–oh, years
ago–and spoken at Mother’s club, and had tugged and pulled her, Dolly, by
her bare arm onto his lap in front of everybody, and kissed her face, she
was ten and furious with him? Did I know he had seen me and her at the inn
where he was writing the very play she was to rehearse in Beardsley, two
years later? Did I know–It had been horrid of her to sidetrack me into
believing that Clare was an old female, maybe a relative of his or a
sometime lifemate–and oh, what a close shave it had been when the Wace
Journal carried his picture.
The Briceland Gazette had not. Yes, very amusing.
Yes, she said, this world was just one gag after another, if somebody
wrote up her life nobody would ever believe it.
At this point, there came brisk homey sounds from the kitchen into
which Dick and Bill had lumbered in quest of beer. Through the doorway they
noticed the visitor, and Dick entered the parlor.
“Dick, this is my Dad!” cried Dolly in a resounding violent voice that
struck me as a totally strange, and new, and cheerful, and old, and sad,
because the young fellow, veteran of a remote war, was hard of hearing.
Arctic blue eyes, black hair, ruddy cheeks, unshaven chin. We shook
hands. Discreet Bill, who evidently took pride in working wonders with one
hand, brought in the beer cans he had opened. Wanted to withdraw. The
exquisite courtesy of simple folks. Was made to stay. A beer ad. In point of
fact, I preferred it that way, and so did the Schillers. I switched to the
jittery rocker. Avidly munching, Dilly plied me with marshmallows and potato
chips. The men looked at her fragile, frileux, diminutive, old-world,
youngish but sickly, father in velvet coat and beige vest, maybe a viscount.
They were under the impression I had come to stay, and Dick with a
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great wrinkling of brows that denoted difficult thought, suggested Dolly and
he might sleep in the kitchen on a spare mattress. I waved a light hand and
told Dolly who transmitted it by means of a special shout to Dick that I had
merely dropped in on my way to Readsburg where I was to be entertained by
some friends and admirers. It was then noticed that one of the few thumbs
remaining to Bill was bleeding (not such a wonder-worker after all). How
womanish and somehow never seen that way before was the shadowy division
between her pale breasts when she bent down over the man’s hand! She took
him for repairs to the kitchen. For a few minutes, three or four little
eternities which positively welled with artificial warmth, Dick and I
remained alone. He sat on a hard chair rubbing his forelimbs and frowning. I
had an idle urge to squeeze out the blackheads on the wings of his
perspiring nose with my long agate claws. He had nice sad eyes with
beautiful lashes, and very white teeth. His Adam’s apple was large and
hairy. Why don’t they shave better, those young brawny chaps? He and his
Dolly had had unrestrained intercourse on that couch there, at least a
hundred and eighty times, probably much more; and before that–how long had
she known him? No grudge. Funny–no grudge at all, nothing except grief and
nausea. He was now rubbing his nose. I was sure that when finally he would
open his mouth, he would say (slightly shaking his head): “Aw, she’s a swell
kid, Mr. Haze. She sure is. And she’s going to make a swell mother.” He
opened his mouth–and took a sip of beer. This gave him countenance–and he
went on sipping till he frothed at the mouth. He was a lamb. He had cupped
her Florentine breasts. His fingernails were black and broken, but the
phalanges, the whole carpus, the strong shapely wrist were far, far finer
than mine: I have hurt too much too many bodies with my twisted poor hands
to be proud of them. French epithets, a Dorset yokel’s knuckles, an Austrian
tailor’s flat finger tips–that’s Humbert Humbert.
Good. If he was silent I could be silent too. Indeed, I could very well
do with a little rest in this subdued, frightened-to-death rocking chair,
before I drove to wherever the beast’s lair was–and then pulled the
pistol’s foreskin back, and then enjoyed the orgasm of the crushed trigger:
I was always a good little follower of the Viennese medicine man. But
presently I became sorry for poor Dick whom, in some hypnotoid way, I was
horribly preventing from making the only remark he could think up (“She’s a
swell kid. . .”).
“And so,” I said, “you are going to Canada?”
In the kitchen, Dolly was laughing at something Bill had said or done.
“And so,” I shouted, “you are going to Canada? Not Canada”–I
re-shouted–“I mean Alaska, of course.”
He nursed his glass and, nodding sagely, replied: “Well, he cut it on a
jagger, I guess. Lost his right arm in Italy.”
Lovely mauve almond trees in bloom. A blown-off surrealistic arm
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hanging up there in the pointillistic mauve. A flowergirl tattoo on the
hand. Dolly and band-aided Bill reappeared. It occurred to me that her
ambiguous, brown and pale beauty excited the cripple. Dick, with a grin of
relief stood up. He guessed Bill and he would be going back to fix those
wires. He guessed Mr. Haze and Dolly had loads of things to say to each
other. He guessed he would be seeing me before I left. Why do those people
guess so much and shave so little, and are so disdainful of hearing aids?
“Sit down,” she said, audibly striking her flanks with her palms. I
relapsed into the black rocker.
“So you betrayed me? Where did you go? Where is he now?”
She took from the mantelpiece a concave glossy snapshot. Old woman in
white, stout, beaming, bowlegged, very short dress; old man in his
shirtsleeves, drooping mustache, watch chain. Her in-laws. Living with
Dick’s brother’s family in Juneau.
“Sure you don’t want to smoke?”
She was smoking herself. First time I saw her doing it. Streng
verboten under Humbert the Terrible. Gracefully, in a blue mist,
Charlotte Haze rose from her grave. I would find him through Uncle Ivory if
she refused.
“Betrayed you? No.” She directed the dart of her cigarette, index
rapidly tapping upon it, toward the hearth exactly as her mother used to do,
and then, like her mother, oh my God, with her fingernail scratched and
removed a fragment of cigarette paper from her underlip. No. She had not
betrayed me. I was among friends. Edusa had warned her that Cue liked little
girls, had been almost jailed once, in fact (nice fact), and he knew she
knew. Yes . . . Elbow in palm, puff, smile, exhaled smoke, darting gesture.
Waxing reminiscent. He saw–smiling–through everything and everybody,
because he was not like me and her but a genius. A great guy. Full of fun.
Had rocked with laughter when she confessed about me and her, and said he
had thought so. It was quite safe, under the circumstances, to tell him . .
.
Well, Cue–they all called him Cue–
Her camp five years ago. Curious coincidence–. . . took her to a dude
ranch about a day’s drive from Elephant (Elphinstone). Named? Oh, some silly
name–Duk Duk Ranch–you know just plain silly–but it did not matter
now, anyway, because the place had vanished and disintegrated. Really, she
meant, I could not imagine how utterly lush that ranch was, she meant it had
everything but everything, even an indoor waterfall. Did I remember the
red-haired guy we (“we” was good) had once had some tennis with? Well, the
place really belonged to Red’s brother, but he had turned it over to Cue for
the summer. When Cue and she came, the others had them actually go through a
coronation ceremony and then–a terrific ducking, as when you cross the
Equator. You know.
Her eyes rolled in synthetic resignation.
“Go on, please.”
Well. The idea was he would take her in September to Hollywood and
arrange a tryout for her, a bit part in the tennis-match scene of a movie
picture based on a play of his–Golden Guts–and perhaps even have
her double one of its sensational starlets on the Klieg-struck tennis court.
Alas, it never came to that.
“Where is the hog now?”
He was not a hog. He was a great guy in many respects. But it was all
drink and drugs. And, of course, he was a complete freak in sex matters, and
his friends were his slaves. I just could not imagine (I, Humbert, could not
imagine!) what they all did at Duk Duk Ranch. She refused to take part
because she loved him, and he threw her out.
“What things?”
“Oh, weird, filthy, fancy things. I mean, he had two girls and tow
boys, and three or four men, and the idea was for all of us to tangle in the
nude while an old woman took movie pictures.” (Sade’s Justine was twelve at
the start.)
“What things exactly?”
“Oh, things . . . Oh, I–really I”–she uttered the “I” as a subdued
cry while she listened to the source of the ache, and for lack of words
spread the five fingers of her angularly up-and-down-moving hand. No, she
gave it up, she refused to go into particulars with that baby inside her.
That made sense.
“It is of no importance now,” she said pounding a gray cushion with her
fist and then lying back, belly up, on the divan. “Crazy things, filthy
things. I said no, I’m just not going to [she used, in all insouciance
really, a disgusting slang term which, in a literal French translation,
would be souffler] your beastly boys, because I want only you. Well,
he kicked me out.”
There was not much else to tell. That winter 1949, Fay and she had
found jobs. For almost two years she had–oh, just drifted, oh, doing some
restaurant work in small places, and then she had met Dick. No, she did not
know where the other was. In New York, she guessed. Of course, he was so
famous she would have found him at once if she had wanted. Fay had tried to
get back to the Ranch–and it just was not there any more–it had burned to
the ground, nothing remained, just a charred heap of rubbish. It was
so strange, so strange–
She closed her eyes and opened her mouth, leaning back on the cushion,
one felted foot on the floor. The wooden floor slanted, a little steel ball
would have rolled into the kitchen. I knew all I wanted to know. I had no
intention of torturing my darling. Somewhere beyond Bill’s shack an
afterwork radio had begun singing of folly and fate, and there she was with
her ruined looks and her adult, rope-veined narrow hands and her goose-flesh
white arms, and her shallow ears, and her unkempt armpits, there she was (my
Lolita!), hopelessly worn at seventeen, with that baby, dreaming already in
her of becoming a big shot and retiring around 2020 A.D.–and I looked and
looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her
more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for
anywhere else. She was only the faint violet whiff and dead leaf echo of the
nymphet I had rolled myself upon with such cries in the past; an echo on the
brink of a russet ravine, with a far wood under a white sky, and brown
leaves choking the brook, and one last cricket in the crisp weeds . . . but
thank God it was not that echo alone that I worshipped. What I used to
pamper among the tangled vines of my heart, mon grand pèchè radieux,
had dwindled to its essence: sterile and selfish vice, all that I
canceled and cursed. You may jeer at me, and threaten to clear the court,
but until I am gagged and half-throttled, I will shout my poor truth. I
insist the world know how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale
and polluted, and big with another’s child, but still gray-eyed, still
sooty-lashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita, still mine;
Changeons de vie, ma Carmen, allons vivre quelque part oû nous ne serons
jamais sèparès; Ohio? The wilds of Massachusetts? No matter, even if
those eyes of hers would fade to myopic fish, and her nipples swell and
crack, and her lovely young velvety delicate delta be tainted and torn–even
then I would go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of your dear wan face,
at the mere sound of your raucous young voice, my Lolita.
“Lolita,” I said, “this may be neither here nor there but I have to say
it. Life is very short. From here to that old car you know so well there is a
stretch of twenty, twenty-five paces. It is a very short walk. Make those
twenty-five steps. Now. Right now. Come just as you are. And we shall live
happily ever after.”
Carmen, voulez-vous venir avec moi?
“You mean,” she said opening her eyes and raising herself slightly, the
snake that may strike, “you mean you will give us [us] that money only if I
go with you to a motel. Is that what you mean?”
“No,” I said, “you got it all wrong. I want you to leave your
incidental Dick, and this awful hole, and come to live with me, and die with
me, and everything with me” (words to that effect).
“You’re crazy,” she said, her features working.
“Think it over, Lolita. There are no strings attached. Except,
perhaps–well, no matter.” (A reprieve, I wanted to say but did not.)
“Anyway, if you refuse you will still get your . . . trousseau.”
“No kidding?” asked Dolly.
I handed her an envelope with four hundred dollars in cash and a check
for three thousand six hundred more.
Gingerly, uncertainly, she received mon petit cadeau; and then
her forehead became a beautiful pink. “You mean,” she said, with agonized
emphasis, “you are giving us four thousand bucks?” I covered my face
with my hand and broke into the hottest tears I had ever shed. I felt them
winding through my fingers and down my chin, and burning me, and my nose got
clogged, and I could not stop, and then she touched my wrist.
“I’ll die if you touch me,” I said. “You are sure you are not coming
with me? Is there no hope of your coming? Tell me only this.”
“No,” she said. “No, honey, no.”
She had never called me honey before.
“No,” she said, “it is quite out of the question. I would sooner go
back to Cue. I mean–”
She groped for words. I supplied them mentally (“He broke my
heart. You merely broke my life”).
“I think,” she went on–“oops”–the envelope skidded to the floor–she
picked it up–“I think it’s oh utterly grand of you to give us all
that dough. It settles everything, we can start next week. Stop crying,
please. You should understand. Let me get you some more beer. Oh, don’t cry,
I’m so sorry I cheated so much, but that’s the way things are.”
I wiped my face and my fingers. She smiled at the cadeau. She
exulted. She wanted to call Dick. I said I would have to leave in a moment,
did not want to see him at all, at all. We tried to think of some subject of
conversation. For some reason, I kept seeing–it trembled and silkily glowed
on my damn retina–a radiant child of twelve, sitting on a threshold,
“pinging” pebbles at an empty can. I almost said–trying to find some casual
remark–“I wonder sometimes what has become of the little McCoo girl, did
she ever get better?”–but stopped in time lest she rejoin: “I wonder
sometimes what has become of the little Haze girl . . .” Finally, I reverted
to money matters. That sum, I said, represented more or less the net rent
from her mother’s house; she said: “Had it not been sold years ago?” No (I
admit I had told her this in order to sever all connections with R.);
a lawyer would send a full account of the financial situation later; it was
rosy; some of the small securities her mother had owned had gone up and up.
Yes, I was quite sure I had to go. I had to go, and find him, and destroy
him.
Since I would not have survived the touch of her lips, I kept
retreating in a mincing dance, at every step she and her belly made toward
me.
She and the dog saw me off. I was surprised (this a rhetorical figure,
I was not) that the sight of the old car in which she had ridden as a child
and a nymphet, left her so very indifferent. All she remarked was it was
getting sort of purplish about the gills. I said it was hers, I could go by
bus. She said don’t be silly, they would fly to Jupiter and buy a car there.
I said I would buy this one from her for five hundred dollars.
“At this rate we’ll be millionnaires next,” she said to the ecstatic
dog.
Carmencita, lui demandais-je . . . “One last word,” I said in my
horrible careful English, “are you quite, quite sure that–well, not
tomorrow, of course, and not after tomorrow, but–well–some day, any day,
you will not come to live with me? I will create a brand new God and thank
him with piercing cries, if you give me that microscopic hope” (to that
effect).
“No,” she said smiling, “no.”
“It would have made all the difference,” said Humbert Humbert.
Then I pulled out my automatic–I mean, this is the kind of fool thing
a reader might suppose I did. It never even occurred to me to do it.
“Good by-aye!” she changed, my American sweet immortal dead love; for
she is dead and immortal if you are reading this. I mean, such is the formal
agreement with the so-called authorities.
Then, as I drove away, I heard her shout in a vibrant voice to her
Dick; and the dog started to lope alongside my car like a fat dolphin, but
he was too heavy and old, and very soon gave up.
And presently I was driving through the drizzle of the dying day, with
the windshield wipers in full action but unable to cope with my tears.
30
Leaving as I did Coalmont around four in the afternoon (by Route X–I
do not remember the number(, I might have made Ramsdale by dawn had not a
short-cut tempted me. I had to get onto Highway Y. My map showed quite
blandly that just beyond Woodbine, which I reached at nightfall, I could
leave paved X and reached paved Y by means of a transverse dirt road. It was
only some forty miles long according to my map. Otherwise I would have to
follow X for another hundred miles and then use leisurely looping Z to get
to Y and my destination. However, the short-cut in question got worse and
worse, bumpier and bumpier, muddier and muddier, and when I attempted to
turn back after some ten miles of purblind, tortuous and tortoise-slow
progress, my old and weak Melmoth got stuck in deep clay. All was dark and
muggy, and hopeless. My headlights hung over a broad ditch full of water.
The surrounding country, if any, was a black wilderness. I sought to
extricate myself but my rear wheels only whined in slosh and anguish.
Cursing my plight, I took off my fancy clothes, changed into slacks, pulled
on the bullet-riddled sweater, and waded four miles back to a roadside farm.
It started to rain on the way but I had not the strength to go back for a
mackintosh. Such incidents have convinced me that my heart is basically
sound despite recent diagnoses. Around midnight, a wrecker dragged my car
out. I navigated back to Highway X and traveled on. Utter weariness overtook
me and hour later, in an anonymous little town. I pulled up at the curb and
in darkness drank deep from a friendly flask.
The rain had been canceled miles before. It was a black warm night,
somewhere in Appalachia. Now and then cars passed me, red tail-lights
receding, white headlights advancing, but the town was dead. Nobody strolled
and laughed on the sidewalks as relaxing burghers would in sweet, mellow,
rotting Europe. I was alone to enjoy the innocent night and my terrible
thoughts. A wire receptacle on the curb was very particular about acceptable
contents: Sweepings. Paper. No Garbage. Sherry-red letters of light marked a
Camera Shop. A large thermometer with the name of a laxative quietly dwelt
on the front of a drugstore. Rubinov’s Jewelry company had a display of
artificial diamonds reflected in a red mirror. A lighted green clock swam in
the linenish depths of Jiffy Jeff Laundry. On the other side of the street a
garage said in its sleep–genuflection lubricity; and corrected itself to
Gulflex Lubrication. An airplane, also gemmed by Rubinov, passed, droning,
in the velvet heavens. How many small dead-of-night towns I had seen! This
was not yet the last.
Let me dally a little, he is as good as destroyed. Some way further
across the street, neon lights flickered twice slower than my heart: the
outline of a restaurant sign, a large coffee-pot, kept bursting, every full
second or so, into emerald life, and every time it went out, pink letters
saying Fine Foods relayed it, but the pot could still be made out as a
latent shadow teasing the eye before its next emerald resurrection. We made
shadow-graphs. This furtive burg was not far from The Enchanted Hunters. I
was weeping again, drunk on the impossible past.
31
At this solitary stop for refreshments between Coalmont and Ramsdale
(between innocent Dolly Schiller and jovial Uncle Ivor), I reviewed my case.
With the utmost simplicity and clarity I now saw myself and my love.
Previous attempts seemed out of focus in comparison. A couple of years
before, under the guidance of an intelligent French-speaking confessor, to
whom, in a moment of metaphysical curiosity, I had turned over a
Protestant’s drab atheism for an old-fashioned popish cure, I had hoped to
deduce from my sense of sin the existence of a Supreme Being. On those
frosty mornings in rime-laced Quebec, the good priest worked on me with the
finest tenderness and understanding. I am infinitely obliged to him and the
great Institution he represented. Alas, I was unable to transcend the simple
human fact that whatever spiritual solace I might find, whatever lithophanic
eternities might be provided for me, nothing could make my Lolita forget the
foul lust I had inflicted upon her. Unless it can be proven to me–to me as
I am now, today, with my heart and by beard, and my putrefaction–that in
the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child
named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless
this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for
the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of
articulate art. To quote an old poet:
The moral sense in mortals is the duty
We have to pay on mortal sense of beauty.
32
There was the day, during our first trip–our first circle of
paradise–when in order to enjoy my phantasms in peace I firmly decided to
ignore what I could not help perceiving, the fact that I was to her not a
boy friend, not a glamour man, not a pal, not even a person at all, but just
two eyes and a foot of engorged brawn–to mention only mentionable matters.
There was the day when having withdrawn the functional promise I had made
her on the eve (whatever she had set her funny little heart on–a roller
rink with some special plastic floor or a movie matinee to which she wanted
to go alone), I happened to glimpse from the bathroom, through a chance
combination of mirror aslant and door ajar, a look on her face . . . that
look I cannot exactly describe . . . an expression of helplessness so
perfect that it seemed to grade into one of rather comfortable inanity just
because this was the very limit of injustice and frustration–and every
limit presupposes something beyond it–hence the neutral illumination. And
when you bear in mind that these were the raised eyebrows and parted lips of
a child, you may better appreciate what depths of calculated carnality, what
reflected despair, restrained me from falling at her dear feet and
dissolving in human tears, and sacrificing my jealousy to whatever pleasure
Lolita might hope to derive from mixing with dirty and dangerous children in
an outside world that was real to her.
And I have still other smothered memories, now unfolding themselves
into limbless monsters of pain. Once, in a sunset-ending street of
Beardsley, she turned to little Eva Rosen (I was taking both nymphets to a
concert and walking behind them so close as almost to touch them with my
person), she turned to Eva, and so very serenely and seriously, in answer to
something the other had said about its being better to die than hear Milton
Pinski, some local schoolboy she knew, talk about music, my Lolita remarked:
“You know, what’s so dreadful about dying is that you are completely on
your own”; and it struck me, as my automaton knees went up and down, that I
simply did not know a thing about my darling’s mind and that quite possibly,
behind the awful juvenile clichès, there was in her a garden and a twilight,
and a palace gate–dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and
absolutely forbidden to me, in my polluted rags and miserable convulsions;
for I often noticed that living as we did, she and I, in a world of total
evil, we would become strangely embarrassed whenever I tried to discuss
something she and an older friend, she and a parent, she and a real healthy
sweetheart, I and Annabel, Lolita and a sublime, purified, analyzed, deified
Harold Haze, might have discussed–an abstract idea, a painting, stippled
Hopkins or shorn Baudelaire, God or Shakespeare, anything of genuine kind.
Good will! She would mail her vulnerability in trite brashness and boredom,
whereas I, using for my desperately detached comments an artificial tone of
voice that set my own last teeth on edge, provoked my audience to such
outbursts of rudeness as made any further conversation impossible, oh my
poor, bruised child.
I loved you. I was a pentapod monster, but I loved you. I was
despicable and brutal, and turpid, and everything, mais je t’aimais, je
t’aimais! And there were times when I knew how you felt, and it was hell
to know it, my little one. Lolita girl, brave Dolly Schiller.
I recall certain moments, let us call them icebergs in paradise, when
after having had my fill of her–after fabulous, insane exertions that left
me limp and azure-barred–I would gather her in my arms with, at last, a
mute moan of human tenderness (her skin glistening in the neon light coming
from the paved court through the slits in the blind, her soot-black lashes
matted, her grave gray eyes more vacant than ever–for all the world a
little patient still in the confusion of a drug after a major
operation)–and the tenderness would deepen to shame and despair, and I
would lull and rock my lone light Lolita in my marble arms, and moan in her
warm hair, and caress her at random and mutely ask her blessing, and at the
peak of this human agonized selfless tenderness (with my soul actually
hanging around her naked body and ready to repent), all at once, ironically,
horribly, lust would swell again–and “oh, no,” Lolita would say with
a sigh to heaven, and the next moment the tenderness and the azure–all
would be shattered.
Mid-twentieth century ideas concerning child-parent relationship have
been considerably tainted by the scholastic rigmarole and standardized
symbols of the psychoanalytic racket, but I hope I am addressing myself to
unbiased readers. Once when Avis’s father had honked outside to signal papa
had come to take his pet home, I felt obliged to invite him into the parlor,
and he sat down for a minute, and while we conversed, Avis, a heavy,
unattractive, affectionate child, drew up to him and eventually perched
plumply on his knee. Now, I do not remember if I have mentioned that Lolita
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always had an absolutely enchanting smile for strangers, a tender furry
slitting of the eyes, a dreamy sweet radiance of all her features which did
not mean a thing of course, but was so beautiful, so endearing that one
found it hard to reduce such sweetness to but a magic gene automatically
lighting up her face in atavistic token of some ancient rite of
welcome–hospitable prostitution, the coarse reader may say. Well, there she
stood while Mr. Byrd twirled his hat and talked, and–yes, look how stupid
of me, I have left out the main characteristic of the famous Lolita smile,
namely: while the tender, nectared, dimpled brightness played, it was never
directed at the stranger in the room but hung in its own remote flowered
void, so to speak, or wandered with myopic softness over chance objects–and
this is what was happening now: while fat Avis sidled up to her papa, Lolita
gently beamed at a fruit knife that she fingered on the edge of the table,
whereon she leaned, many miles away from me. Suddenly, as Avis clung to her
father’s neck and ear while, with a casual arm, the man enveloped his lumpy
and large offspring, I saw Lolita’s smile lose all its light and become a
frozen little shadow of itself, and the fruit knife slipped off the table
and struck her with its silver handle a freak blow on the ankle which made
her gasp, and crouch head forward, and then, jumping on one leg, her face
awful with the preparatory grimace which children hold till the tears gush,
she was gone–to be followed at once and consoled in the kitchen by Avis who
had such a wonderful fat pink dad and a small chubby brother, and a
brand-new baby sister, and a home, and two grinning dogs, and Lolita had
nothing. And I have a neat pendant to that little scene–also in a Beardsley
setting. Lolita, who had been reading near the fire, stretched herself, and
then inquired, her elbow up, with a grunt: “Where is she buried anyway?”
“Who?” “Oh, you know, my murdered mummy.” “And you know where her
grave is,” I said controlling myself, whereupon I named the cemetery–just
outside Ramsdale, between the railway tracks and Lakeview Hill. “Moreover,”
I added, “the tragedy of such an accident is somewhat cheapened by the
epithet you saw fit to apply to it. If you really wish to triumph in your
mind over the idea of death–” “Ray,” said Lo for hurrah, and languidly left
the room, and for a long while I stared with smarting eyes into the fire.
Then I picked up her book. It was some trash for young people. There was a
gloomy girl Marion, and there was her stepmother who turned out to be,
against all expectations, a young, gay, understanding redhead who explained
to Marion that Marion’s dead mother had really been a heroic woman since she
had deliberately dissimulated her great love for Marion because she was
dying, and did not want her child to miss her. I did not rush up to her room
with cries. I always preferred the mental hygiene of noninterference. Now,
squirming and pleading with my own memory, I recall that on this and similar
occasions, it was always my habit and method to ignore Lolita’s states of
mind while comforting my own base self. When my mother, in a livid wet
dress, under the tumbling mist (so I vividly imagined her), had run panting
ecstatically up that ridge above Moulinet to be felled there by a
thunderbolt, I was but an infant, and in retrospect no yearnings of the
accepted kind could I ever graft upon any moment of my youth, no matter how
savagely psychotherapists heckled me in my later periods of depression. But
I admit that a man of my power of imagination cannot plead personal
ignorance of universal emotions. I may also have relied too much on the
abnormally chill relations between Charlotte and her daughter. But the awful
point of the whole argument is this. It had become gradually clear to my
conventional Lolita during our singular and bestial cohabitation that even
the most miserable of family lives was better than the parody of incest,
which, in the long run, was the best I could offer the waif.
33
Ramsdale revisited. I approached it from the side of the lake. The
sunny noon was all eyes. As I rode by in my mud-flecked car, I could
distinguish scintillas of diamond water between the far pines. I turned into
the cemetery and walked among the long and short stone monuments.
Bonzhur, Charlotte. On some of the graves there were pale,
transparent little national flags slumped in the windless air under the
evergreens. Gee, Ed, that was bad luck–referring to G. Edward Grammar, a
thirty-five-year-old New York office manager who had just been arrayed on a
charge of murdering his thirty-three-year-old wife, Dorothy. Bidding for the
perfect crime, Ed had bludgeoned his wife and put her into a car. The case
came to light when two county policemen on patrol saw Mrs. Grammar’s new big
blue Chrysler, an anniversary present from her husband, speeding crazily
down a hill, just inside their jurisdiction (God bless our good cops!). The
car sideswiped a pole, ran up an embankment covered with beard grass, wild
strawberry and cinquefoil, and overturned. The wheels were still gently
spinning in the mellow sunlight when the officers removed Mrs. G’s body. It
appeared to be routine highway accident at first. Alas, the woman’s battered
body did not match up with only minor damage suffered by the car. I did
better.
I rolled on. It was funny to see again the slender white church and the
enormous elms. Forgetting that in an American suburban street a lone
pedestrian is more conspicuous than a lone motorist, I left the car in the
avenue to walk unobtrusively past 342 Lawn Street. Before the great
bloodshed, I was entitled to a little relief, to a cathartic spasm of mental
regurgitation. Closed were the white shutters of the Junk mansion, and
somebody had attached a found black velvet hair ribbon to the white FOR SALE
sign which was leaning toward the sidewalk. No dog barked. No gardener
telephoned. No Miss Opposite sat on the vined porch–where to the lone
pedestrian’s annoyance two pony-tailed young women in identical polka-dotted
pinafores stopped doing whatever they were doing to stare at him: she was
long dead, no doubt, these might be her twin nieces from Philadelphia.
Should I enter my old house? As in a Turgenev story, a torrent of
Italian music came from an open window–that of the living room: what
romantic soul was playing the piano where no piano had plunged and plashed
on that bewitched Sunday with the sun on her beloved legs? All at once I
noticed that from the lawn I had mown a golden-skinned, brown-haired nymphet
of nine or ten, in white shorts, was looking at me with wild fascination in
her large blue-black eyes. I said something pleasant to her, meaning no
harm, an old-world compliment, what nice eyes you have, but she retreated in
haste and the music stopped abruptly, and a violent-looking dark man,
glistening with sweat, came out and glared at me. I was on the point of
identifying myself when, with a pang of dream-embarrassment, I became aware
of my mud-caked dungarees, my filthy and torn sweater, my bristly chin, my
bum’s bloodshot eyes. Without saying a word, I turned and plodded back the
way I had come. An aster-like anemic flower grew out of a remembered chink
in the sidewalk. Quietly resurrected, Miss Opposite was being wheeled out by
her nieces, onto her porch, as if it were a stage and I the star performer.
Praying she would not call to me, I hurried to my car. What a steep little
street. What a profound avenue. A red ticket showed between wiper and
windshield; I carefully tore it into two, four, eight pieces.
Feeling I was losing my time, I drove energetically to the downtown
hotel where I had arrived with a new bag more than five years before. I took
a room, made two appointments by telephone, shaved, bathed, put on black
clothes and went down for a drink in the bar. Nothing had changed. The
barroom was suffused with the same dim, impossible garnet-red light that in
Europe years ago went with low haunts, but here meant a bit of atmosphere in
a family hotel. I sat at the same little table where at the very start of my
stay, immediately after becoming Charlotte’s lodger, I had thought fit to
celebrate the occasion by suavely sharing with her half a bottle of
champagne, which had fatally conquered her poor brimming heart. As then, a
moon-faced waiter was arranging with stellar care fifty sherries on a round
tray for a wedding party. Murphy-Fantasia, this time. It was eight minutes
to three. As I walked though the lobby, I had to skirt a group of ladies who
with mille gráces were taking leave of each other after a luncheon
party. With a harsh cry of recognition, one pounced upon me. She was a
stout, short woman in pearl-gray, with a long, gray, slim plume to her small
hat. It was Mrs. Chatfield. She attacked me with a fake smile, all aglow
with evil curiosity. (Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a
fifty-year-old mechanic, had done o eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?)
Very soon I had that avid glee well under control She thought I was in
California. How was–? With exquisite pleasure I informed her that my
stepdaughter had just married a brilliant young mining engineer with a
hush-hush job in the Northwest. She said she disapproved of such early
marriages, she would never let her Phillys, who was now eighteen–
“Oh yes, of course,” I said quietly. “I remember Phyllis. Phyllis and
Camp Q. yes, of course. By the way, did she ever tell you how Charlie Holmes
debauched there his mother’s little charges?”
Mrs. Chatfiled’s already broken smile now disintegrated completely.
“For shame,” she cried, “for shame, Mr. Humbert! The poor boy has just
been killed in Korea.”
I said didn’t she think “vient de,” with the infinitive,
expressed recent events so much more neatly than the English “just,” with
the past? But I had to be trotting off, I said.
There were only two blocks to Windmuller’s office. He greeted me with a
very slow, very enveloping, strong, searching grip. He thought I was in
California. Had I not lived at one time at Beardsley? His daughter had just
entered Beardsley College. And how was–? I have all necessary information
about Mrs. Schiller. We had a pleasant business conference. I walked out
into the hot September sunshine a contented pauper.
Now that everything had been put out of the way, I could dedicate
myself freely to the main object of my visit to Ramsdale. In the methodical
manner on which I have always prided myself, I had been keeping Clare
Quilty’s face masked in my dark dungeon, where he was waiting for me to come
with barber and priest: “Rèveillez-vous, Laqueue, il est temps de
mourir!” I have no time right now to discuss the mnemonics of
physiognomization–I am on my way to his uncle and walking fast–but let me
jot down this: I had preserved in the alcohol of a clouded memory the toad
of a face. In the course of a few glimpses, I had noticed its slight
resemblance to a cheery and rather repulsive wine dealer, a relative of mine
in Switzerland. With his dumbbells and stinking tricot, and fat hairy arms,
and bald patch, and pig-faced servant-concubine, he was on the whole a
harmless old rascal. Too harmless, in fact, to be confused with my prey. In
the state of mind I now found myself, I had lost contact with Trapp’s image.
It had become completely engulfed by the face of Clare Quilty–as
represented, with artistic precision, by an easeled photograph of him that
stood on his uncle’s desk.
In Beardsley, at the hands of charming Dr. Molnar, I had undergone a
rather serious dental operation, retaining only a few upper and lower front
teeth. The substitutes were dependent on a system of plates with an
inconspicuous wire affair running along my upper gums. The whole arrangement
was a masterpiece of comfort, and my canines were in perfect health.
However, to garnish my secret purpose with a plausible pretext, I told Dr.
Quilty that, in hope of alleviating facial neuralgia, I had decided to have
all my teeth removed. What would a complete set of dentures cost? How long
would the process take, assuming we fixed our first appointment for some
time in November? Where was his famous nephew now? Would it be possible to
have them all out in one dramatic session?
A white-smocked, gray-haired man, with a crew cut and the big flat
cheeks of a politician, Dr. Quilty perched on the corner of his desk, one
foot dreamily and seductively rocking as he launched on a glorious
long-range plan. He would first provide me with provisional plates until the
gums settled. Then he would make me a permanent set. He would like to have a
look at that mouth of mine. He wore perforated pied shoes. He had not
visited with the rascal since 1946, but supposed he could be found at his
ancestral home, Grimm Road, not far from Parkington. It was a noble dream.
His foot rocked, his gaze was inspired. It would cost me around six hundred.
He suggested he take measurements right away, and make the first set before
starting operations. My mouth was to him a splendid cave full of priceless
treasures, but I denied him entrance.
“No,” I said. “On second thoughts, I shall have it all done by Dr.
Molnar. His price is higher, but he is of course a much better dentist than
you.”
I do not know if any of my readers will ever have a chance to say that.
It is a delicious dream feeling. Clare’s uncle remained sitting on the desk,
still looking dreamy, but his foot had stopped push-rocking the cradle of
rosy anticipation. On the other hand, his nurse, a skeleton-thin, faded
girl, with the tragic eyes of unsuccessful blondes, rushed after me so as to
be able to slam the door in my wake.
Push the magazine into the butt. Press home until you hear or feel the
magazine catch engage. Delightfully snug. Capacity: eight cartridges. Full
Blued. Aching to be discharged.
34
A gas station attendant in Parkington explained to me very clearly how
to get to Grimm Road. Wishing to be sure Quilty would be at home, I
attempted to ring him up but learned that his private telephone had recently
been disconnected. Did that mean he was gone? I started to drive to Grimm
Road, twelve miles north of the town. By that time night had eliminated most
of the landscape and as I followed the narrow winding highway, a series of
short posts, ghostly white, with reflectors, borrowed my own lights to
indicate this or that curve. I could make out a dark valley on one side of
the road and wooded slopes on the other, and in front of me, like derelict
snowflakes, moths drifted out of the blackness into my probing aura. At the
twelfth mile, as foretold, a curiously hooded bridge sheathed me for a
moment and, beyond it, a white-washed rock loomed on the right, and a few
car lengths further, on the same side, I turned off the highway up gravelly
Grimm Road. For a couple of minutes all was dank, dark, dense forest. Then,
Pavor Manor, a wooden house with a turret, arose in a circular clearing. Its
windows glowed yellow and red; its drive was cluttered with half a dozen
cars. I stopped in the shelter of the trees and abolished my lights to
ponder the next move quietly. He would be surrounded by his henchmen and
whores. I could not help seeing the inside of that festive and ramshackle
castle in terms of “Troubled Teens,” a story in one of her magazines, vague
“orgies,” a sinister adult with penele cigar, drugs, bodyguards. At least,
he was there. I would return in the torpid morning.
Gently I rolled back to town, in that old faithful car of mine which
was serenely, almost cheerfully working for me. My Lolita! There was still a
three-year-old bobby pin of hers in the depths of the glove compartment.
There was still that stream of pale moths siphoned out of the night by my
headlights. Dark barns still propped themselves up here and there by the
roadside. People were still going to the movies. While searching for night
lodgings, I passed a drive-in. In a selenian glow, truly mystical in its
contrast with the moonless and massive night, on a gigantic screen slanting
away among dark drowsy fields, a thin phantom raised a gun, both he and his
arm reduced to tremulous dishwater by the oblique angle of that receding
world,–and the next moment a row of trees shut off the gesticulation.
35
I left Insomnia Lodge next morning around eight and spent some time in
Parkington. Visions of bungling the execution kept obsessing me. Thinking
that perhaps the cartridges in the automatic had gone stale during a week of
inactivity, I removed them and inserted a fresh batch. Such a thorough oil
bath did I give Chum that now I could not get rid of the stuff. I bandaged
him up with a rag, like a maimed limb, and used another rag to wrap up a
handful of spare bullets.
A thunderstorm accompanied me most of the way back to Grimm Road, but
when I reached Pavor Manor, the sun was visible again, burning like a man,
and the birds screamed in the drenched and steaming trees. The elaborate and
decrepit house seemed to stand in a kind of daze, reflecting as it were my
own state, for I could not help realizing, as my feet touched the springy
and insecure ground, that I had overdone the alcoholic stimulation business.
A guardedly ironic silence answered my bell. The garage, however, was
loaded with his car, a black convertible for the nonce. I tried the knocker.
Re-nobody. With a petulant snarl, I pushed the front door–and, how nice, it
swung open as in a medieval fairy tale. Having softly closed it behind me, I
made my way across a spacious and very ugly hall; peered into an adjacent
drawing room; noticed a number of used glasses growing out of the carpet;
decided that master was still asleep in the master bedroom.
So I trudged upstairs. My right hand clutched muffled Chum in my
pocket, my left patted the sticky banisters. Of the three bedrooms I
inspected, one had obviously been slept in that night. There was a library
full of flowers. There was a rather bare room with ample and deep mirrors
and a polar bear skin on the slippery floor. There were still other rooms. A
happy though struck me. If and when master returned from his constitutional
in the woods, or emerged from some secret lair, it might be wise for an
unsteady gunman with a long job before him to prevent his playmate from
locking himself up in a room. Consequently, for at least five minutes I went
about–lucidly insane, crazily calm, an enchanted and very tight
hunter–turning whatever keys in whatever locks there were and pocketing
more planned privacy than have modern glamour-boxes, where the bathroom, the
only lockable locus, has to be used for the furtive needs of planned
parenthood.
Speaking of bathrooms–I was about to visit a third one when master
came out of it, leaving a brief waterfall behind him. The corner of a
passage did not quite conceal me. Gray-faced, baggy-eyed, fluffily
disheveled in a scanty balding way, but still perfectly recognizable, he
swept by me in a purple bathrobe, very like one I had. He either did not
notice me, or else dismissed me as some familiar and innocuous
hallucination–and, showing me his hairy calves, he proceeded,
sleepwalker-wise, downstairs. I pocketed my last key and followed him into
the entrance hall. He had half opened his mouth and the front door, to peer
out through a sunny chink as one who thinks he has heard a half-hearted
visitor ring and recede. Then, still ignoring the raincoated phantasm that
had stopped in midstairs, master walked into a cozy boudoir across the hall
from the drawing room, through which–taking it easy, knowing he was safe–I
now went away from him, and in a bar-adorned kitchen gingerly unwrapped
dirty Chum, talking care not to leave any oil stains on the chrome–I think
I got the wrong product, it was black and awfully messy. In my usual
meticulous way, I transferred naked Chum to a clean recess about me and made
for the little boudoir. My step, as I say, was springy–too springy perhaps
for success. But my heart pounded with tiger joy, and I crunched a cocktail
glass underfoot.
Master met me in the Oriental parlor.
“Now who are you?” he asked in a high hoarse voice, his hands thrust
into his dressing-gown pockets, his eyes fixing a point to the northeast of
my head. “Are you by any chance Brewster?”
By now it was evident to everybody that he was in a fog and completely
at my so-called mercy. I could enjoy myself.
“That’s right,” I answered suavely. “Je suis Monsieur Brustõre.
Let us chat for a moment before we start.”
He looked pleased. His smudgy mustache twitched. I removed my raincoat.
I was wearing a black suit, a black shirt, no tie. We sat down in two easy
chairs.
“You know,” he said, scratching loudly his fleshy and gritty gray cheek
and showing his small pearly teeth in a crooked grin, “you don’t look
like Jack Brewster. I mean, the resemblance is not particularly striking.
Somebody told me he had a brother with the same telephone company.”
To have him trapped, after those years of repentance and rage . . . To
look at the black hairs on the back of his pudgy hands . . . To wander with
a hundred eyes over his purple silks and hirsute chest foreglimpsing the
punctures, and mess, and music of pain . . . To know that this
semi-animated, subhuman trickster who had sodomized my darling–oh, my
darling, this was intolerable bliss!
“No, I am afraid I am neither of the Brewsters.”
He cocked his head, looking more pleased than ever.
“Guess again, Punch.”
“Ah,” said Punch, “so you have not come to bother me about those
long-distance calls?”
“You do make them once in a while, don’t you?”
“Excuse me?”
I said I had said I thought he had said he had never–
“People,” he said, “people in general, I’m not accusing you, Brewster,
but you know it’s absurd the way people invade this damned house without
even knocking. They use the vaterre, they use the kitchen, they use
the telephone. Phil calls Philadelphia. Pat calls Patagonia. I refuse to
pay. You have a funny accent, Captain.”
“Quilty,” I said, “do you recall a little girl called Dolores Haze,
Dolly Haze? Dolly called Dolores, Colo.?”
“Sure, she may have made those calls, sure. Any place. Paradise, Wash.,
Hell Canyon. Who cares?”
“I do, Quilty. You see, I am her father.”
“Nonsense,” he said. “You are not. You are some foreign literary agent.
A Frenchman once translated my Proud Flesh as La Fiertè de la
Chair. Absurd.”
“She was my child, Quilty.”
In the state he was in he could not really be taken aback by anything,
but his blustering manner was not quite convincing. A sort of wary inkling
kindled his eyes into a semblance of life. They were immediately dulled
again.
“I’m very fond of children myself,” he said, “and fathers are among my
best friends.”
He turned his head away, looking for something. He beat his pockets. He
attempted to rise from his seat.
“Down!” I said–apparently much louder than I intended.
“You need not roar at me,” he complained in his strange feminine
manner. “I just wanted a smoke. I’m dying for a smoke.”
“You’re dying anyway.”
“Oh, chucks,” he said. “You begin to bore me. What do you want? Are you
French, mister? Wooly-woo-boo-are? Let’s go to the barroomette and have a
stiff–”
He saw the little dark weapon lying in my palm as if I were offering it
to him.
“Say!” he drawled (now imitating the underworld numskull of movies),
“that’s a swell little gun you’ve got there. What d’you want for her?”
I slapped down his outstretched hand and he managed to knock over a box
on a low table near him. It ejected a handful of cigarettes.
“Here they are,” he said cheerfully. “You recall Kipling: une femme
est une femme, mais un Caporal est une cigarette? Now we need matches.”
“Quilty,” I said. “I want you to concentrate. You are going to die in a
moment. The hereafter for all we know may be an eternal state of
excruciating insanity. You smoked your last cigarette yesterday.
Concentrate. Try to understand what is happening to you.”
He kept taking the Drome cigarette apart and munching bits of it.
“I am willing to try,” he said. “You are either Australian, or a German
refugee. Must you talk to me? This is a Gentile’s house, you know. Maybe,
you’d better run along. And do stop demonstrating that gun. I’ve an old
Stern-Luger in the music room.”
I pointed Chum at his slippered foot and crushed the trigger. It
clicked. He looked at his foot, at the pistol, again at his foot. I made
another awful effort, and, with a ridiculously feeble and juvenile sound, it
went off. The bullet entered the thick pink rug, and I had the paralyzing
impression that it had merely trickled in and might come out again.
“See what I mean?” said Quilty. “You should be a little more careful.
Give me that thing for Christ’s sake.”
He reached for it. I pushed him back into the chair. The rich joy was
waning. It was high time I destroyed him, but he must understand why he was
being destroyed. His condition infected me, the weapon felt limp and clumsy
in my hand.
“Concentrate,” I said, “on the thought of Dolly Haze whom you
kidnapped–”
“I did not!” he cried. “You’re all wet. I saved her from a beastly
pervert. Show me your badge instead of shooting at my foot, you ape, you.
Where is that badge? I’m not responsible for the rapes of others. Absurd!
That joy ride, I grant you, was a silly stunt but you got her back, didn’t
you? Come, let’s have a drink.”
I asked him whether he wanted to be executed sitting or standing.
“Ah, let me think,” he said. “It is not an easy question.
Incidentally–I made a mistake. Which I sincerely regret. You see, I had no
fun with your Dolly. I am practically impotent, to tell the melancholy
truth. And I gave her a splendid vacation. She met some remarkable people.
Do you happen to know–”
And with a tremendous lurch he fell all over me, sending the pistol
hurtling under a chest of drawers. Fortunately he was more impetuous than
vigorous, and I had little difficulty in shoving him back into his chair.
He puffed a little and folded his arms on his chest.
“Now you’ve done it,” he said. “Vous voilþ dans de beaux draps, mon
vieux.”
His French was improving.
I looked around. Perhaps, if–Perhaps I could–On my hands and knees?
Risk it?
“Alors, que fait-on?” he asked watching me closely.
I stooped. He did not moved. I stooped lower.
“My dear sir,” he said, “stop trifling with life and death. I am a
playwright. I have written tragedies, comedies, fantasies. I have made
private movies out of Justine and other eighteenth-century
sexcapades. I’m the author of fifty-two successful scenarios. I know all the
ropes. Let me handle this. There should be a poker somewhere, why don’t I
fetch it, and then we’ll fish out your property.”
Fussily, busybodily, cunningly, he had risen again while he talked. I
groped under the chest trying at the same time to keep an eye on him. All of
a sudden I noticed that he had noticed that I did not seem to have noticed
Chum protruding from beneath the other corner of the chest. We fell to
wrestling again. We rolled all over the floor, in each other’s arms, like
two huge helpless children. He was naked and goatish under his robe, and I
felt suffocated as he rolled over me. I rolled over him. We rolled over me.
They rolled over him. We rolled over us.
In its published form, this book is being read, I assume, in the first
years of 2000 A.D. (1935 plus eighty or ninety, live long, my love); and
elderly readers will surely recall at this point the obligatory scene in the
Westerns of their childhood. Our tussle, however, lacked the ox-stunning
fisticuffs, the flying furniture. He and I were two large dummies, stuffed
with dirty cotton and rags. It was a silent, soft, formless tussle on the
part of two literati, one of whom was utterly disorganized by a drug while
the other was handicapped by a heart condition and too much gin. When at
last I had possessed myself of my precious weapon, and the scenario writer
had been reinstalled in his low chair, both of us were panting as the cowman
and the sheepman never do after their battle.
I decided to inspect the pistol–our sweat might have spoiled
something–and regain my wind before proceeding to the main item in the
program. To fill in the pause, I proposed he read his own sentence–in the
poetical form I had given it. The term “poetical justice” is one that may be
most happily used in this respect. I handed him a neat typescript.
“Yes,” he said, “splendid idea. Let me fetch my reading glasses” (he
attempted to rise).
“No.”
“Just as you say. Shall I read out loud?”
“Yes.”
“Here goes. I see it’s in verse.
Because you took advantage of a sinner
because you took advantage
because you took
because you took advantage of my disadvantage . . .
“That’s good, you know. That’s damned good.”
. . . when I stood Adam-naked
before a federal law and all its stinging stars
“Oh, grand stuff!”
. . . Because you took advantage of a sin
when I was helpless moulting moist and tender
hoping for the best
dreaming of marriage in a mountain state
aye of a litter of Lolitas . . .
“Didn’t get that.”
Because you took advantage of my inner
essential innocence
because you cheated me–
“A little repetitious, what? Where was I?”
Because you cheated me of my redemption
because you took
her at the age when lads
play with erector sets
“Getting smutty, eh?”
a little downy girl still wearing poppies
still eating popcorn in the colored gloam
where tawny Indians took paid croppers
because you stole her
from her wax-browed and dignified protector
spitting into his heavy-lidded eye
ripping his flavid toga and at dawn
leaving the hog to roll upon his new discomfort
the awfulness of love and violets
remorse despair while you
took a dull doll to pieces
and threw its head away
because of all you did
because of all I did not
you have to die
“Well, sir, this is certainly a fine poem. Your best as far as I’m
concerned.”
He folded and handed it back to me.
I asked him if he had anything serious to say before dying. The
automatic was again ready for use on the person. He looked at it and heaved
a big sigh.
“Now look here, Mac,” he said. “You are drunk and I am a sick man. Let
us postpone the matter. I need quiet. I have to nurse my impotence. Friends
are coming in the afternoon to take me to a game. This pistol-packing farce
is becoming a frightful nuisance. We are men of the world, in
everything–sex, free verse, marksmanship. If you bear me a grudge, I am
ready to make unusual amends. Even an old-fashioned rencontre, sword
or pistol, in Rio or elsewhere–is not excluded. My memory and my eloquence
are not at their best today, but really, my dear Mr. Humbert, you were not
an ideal stepfather, and I did not force your little protègèe to join me. It
was she made me remove her to a happier home. This house is not as modern as
that ranch we shared with dear friends. But it is roomy, cool in summer and
winter, and in a word comfortable, so, since I intend retiring to England or
Florence forever, I suggest you move in. It is yours, gratis. Under the
condition you stop pointing at me that [he swore disgustingly] gun. By the
way, I do not know if you care for the bizarre, but if you do, I can offer
you, also gratis, as house pet, a rather exciting little freak, a young lady
with three breasts, one a dandy, this is a rare and delightful marvel of
nature. Now, soyons raisonnables. You will only wound me hideously
and then rot in jail while I recuperate in a tropical setting. I promise
you, Brewster, you will be happy here, with a magnificent cellar, and all
the royalties from my next play–I have not much at the bank right now but I
propose to borrow–you know, as the Bard said, with that cold in his head,
to borrow and to borrow and to borrow. There are other advantages. We have
here a most reliable and bribable charwoman, a Mrs. Vibrissa–curious
name–who comes from the village twice a week, alas not today, she has
daughters, granddaughters, a thing or two I know about the chief of police
makes him my slave. I am a playwright. I have been called the American
Maeterlinck. Maeterlinck-Schmetterling, says I. Come on! All this is very
humiliating, and I am not sure I am doing the right thing. Never use
herculanita with rum. Now drop that pistol like a good fellow. I knew your
dear wife slightly. You may use my wardrobe. Oh, another thing–you are
going to like this. I have an absolutely unique collection of erotica
upstairs. Just to mention one item: the in folio de-luxe Bagration
Island by the explorer and psychoanalyst Melanie Weiss, a remarkable
lady, a remarkable work–drop that gun–with photographs of eight hundred
and something male organs she examined and measured in 1932 on Bagration, in
the Barda Sea, very illuminating graphs, plotted with love under pleasant
skies–drop that gun–and moreover I can arrange for you to attend
executions, not everybody knows that the chair is painted yellow–”
Feu. This time I hit something hard. I hit the back of a black
rocking chair, not unlike Dolly Schiller’s–my bullet hit the inside surface
of its back whereupon it immediately went into a rocking act, so fast and
with such zest that any one coming into the room might have been
flabbergasted by the double miracle: that chair rocking in a panic all by
itself, and the armchair, where my purple target had just been, now void of
all life content. Wiggling his fingers in the air, with a rapid heave of his
rump, he flashed into the music room and the next second we were tugging and
gasping on both sides of the door which had a key I had overlooked. I won
again, and with another abrupt movement Clare the Impredictable sat down
before the piano and played several atrociously vigorous, fundamentally
hysterical, plangent chords, his jowls quivering, his spread hands tensely
plunging, and his nostrils emitting the soundtrack snorts which had been
absent from our fight. Still singing those impossible sonorities, he made a
futile attempt to open with his foot a kind of seaman’s chest near the
piano. My next bullet caught him somewhere in the side, and he rose from his
chair higher and higher, like old, gray, mad Nijinski, like Old faithful,
like some old nightmare of mine, to a phenomenal altitude, or so it seemed,
as he rent the air–still shaking with the rich black music–head thrown
back in a howl, hand pressed to his brow, and with his other hand clutching
his armpit as if stung by a hornet, down he came on his heels and, again a
normal robed man, scurried out into the hall.
I see myself following him through the hall, with a kind of double,
triple, kangaroo jump, remaining quite straight on straight legs while
bouncing up twice in his wake, and then bouncing between him and the front
door in a ballet-like stiff bounce, with the purpose of heading him off,
since the door was not properly closed.
Suddenly dignified, and somewhat morose, he started to walk up the
broad stairs, and, shifting my position, but not actually following him up
the steps, I fired three or four times in quick succession, wounding him at
every blaze; and every time I did it to him, that horrible thing to him, his
face would twitch in an absurd clownish manner, as if he were exaggerating
the pain; he slowed down, rolled his eyes half closing them and made a
feminine “ah!” and he shivered every time a bullet hit him as if I were
tickling him, and every time I got him with those slow, clumsy, blind
bullets of mine, he would say under his breath, with a phony British
accent–all the while dreadfully twitching, shivering, smirking, but withal
talking in a curiously detached and even amiable manner: “Ah, that hurts,
sir, enough! Ah, that hurts atrociously, my dear fellow. I pray you, desist.
Ah–very painful, very painful, indeed . . . God! Hah! This is abominable,
you should really not–” His voice trailed off as he reached the landing,
but he steadily walked on despite all the lead I had lodged in his bloated
body–and in distress, in dismay, I understood that far from killing him I
was injecting spurts of energy into the poor fellow, as if the bullets had
been capsules wherein a heady elixir danced.
I reloaded the thing with hands that were black and bloody–I had
touched something he had anointed with his thick gore. Then I rejoined him
upstairs, the keys jangling in my pockets like gold.
He was trudging from room to room, bleeding majestically, trying to
find an open window, shaking his head, and still trying to talk me out of
murder. I took aim at his head, and he retired to the master bedroom with a
burst of royal purple where his ear had been.
“Get out, get out of here,” he said coughing and spitting; and in a
nightmare of wonder, I saw this blood-spattered but still buoyant person get
into his bed and wrap himself up in the chaotic bedclothes. I hit him at
very close range through the blankets, and then he lay back, and a big pink
bubble with juvenile connotations formed on his lips, grew to the size of a
toy balloon, and vanished.
I may have lost contact with reality for a second or two–oh, nothing
of the I-just-blacked-out sort that your common criminal enacts; on the
contrary, I want to stress the fact that I was responsible for every shed
drop of his bubbleblood; but a kind of momentary shift occurred as if I were
in the connubial bedroom, and Charlotte were sick in bed. Quilty was a very
sick man. I held one of his slippers instead of the pistol–I was sitting on
the pistol. Then I made myself a little more comfortable in the chair near
the bed, and consulted my wrist watch. The crystal was gone but it ticked.
The whole sad business had taken more than an hour. He was quiet at last.
Far from feeling any relief, a burden even weightier than the one I had
hoped to get rid of was with me, upon me, over me. I could not bring myself
to touch him in order to make sure he was really dead. He looked it: a
quarter of his face gone, and two flies beside themselves with a dawning
sense of unbelievable luck. My hands were hardly in better condition than
his. I washed up as best I could in the adjacent bathroom. Now I could
leave. As I emerged on the landing, I was amazed to discover that a
vivacious buzz I had just been dismissing as a mere singing in my ears was
really a medley of voices and radio music coming from the downstairs drawing
room.
I found there a number of people who apparently had just arrived and
were cheerfully drinking Quilty’s liquor. There was a fat man in an easy
chair; and two dark-haired pale young beauties, sisters no doubt, big one
and small one (almost a child), demurely sat side by side on a davenport. A
florid-faced fellow with sapphire-blue eyes was in the act of bringing two
glasses out of the bar-like kitchen, where two or three women were chatting
and chinking ice. I stopped in the doorway and said: “I have just killed
Clare Quilty.” “Good for you,” said the florid fellow as he offered one of
the drinks to the elder girl. “Somebody ought to have done it long ago,”
remarked the fat man. “What does he say, Tony?” asked a faded blonde from
the bar. “He says,” answered the florid fellow, “he has killed Cue.” “Well,”
said another unidentified man rising in a corner where he had been crouching
to inspect some records, “I guess we all should do it to him some day.”
“Anyway,” said Tony, “he’d better come down. We can’t wait for him much
longer if we want to go to that game.” “Give this man a drink somebody,”
said the fat person. “What a beer?” said a woman in slacks, showing it to me
from afar.
Only the two girls on the davenport, both wearing black, the younger
fingering a bright something about her white neck, only they said nothing,
but just smiled on, so young, so lewd. As the music paused for a moment,
there was a sudden noise on the stairs. Tony and I stepped out into the
hall. Quilty of all people had managed to crawl out onto the landing, and
there we could see him, flapping and heaving, and then subsiding, forever
this time, in a purple heap.
“Hurry up, Cue,” said Tony with a laugh. “I believe, he’s still–” He
returned to the drawing room, music drowned the rest of the sentence.
This, I said to myself, was the end of the ingenious play staged for me
by Quilty. With a heavy heart I left the house and walked though the spotted
blaze of the sun to my car. Two other cars were parked on both sides of it,
and I had some trouble squeezing out.
36
The rest is a little flattish and faded. Slowly I drove downhill, and
presently found myself going at the same lazy pace in a direction opposite
to Parkington. I had left my raincoat in the boudoir and Chum in the
bathroom. No, it was not a house I would have liked to live in. I wondered
idly if some surgeon of genius might not alter his own career, and perhaps
the whole destiny of mankind, by reviving quilted Quilty, Clare Obscure. Not
that I cared; on the whole I wished to forget the whole mess–and when I did
learn he was dead, the only satisfaction it gave me, was the relief of
knowing I need not mentally accompany for months a painful and disgusting
convalescence interrupted by all kinds of unmentionable operations and
relapses, and perhaps an actual visit from him, with trouble on my part to
rationalize him as not being a ghost. Thomas had something. It is strange
that the tactile sense, which is so infinitely less precious to men than
sight, becomes at critical moment our main, if not only, handle to reality.
I was all covered with Quilty–with the feel of that tumble before the
bleeding.
The road now stretched across open country, and it occurred to me–not
by way of protest, not as a symbol, or anything like that, but merely as a
novel experience–that since I had disregarded all laws of humanity, I might
as well disregard the rules of traffic. So I crossed to the left side of the
highway and checked the feeling, and the feeling was good. It was a pleasant
diaphragmal melting, with elements of diffused tactility, all this enhanced
by the thought that nothing could be nearer to the elimination of basic
physical laws than deliberately driving on the wrong side of the road. In a
way, it was a very spiritual itch. Gently, dreamily, not exceeding twenty
miles an hour, I drove on that queer mirror side. Traffic was light. Cars
that now and then passed me on the side I had abandoned to them, honked at
me brutally. Cars coming towards me wobbled, swerved, and cried out in fear.
Presently I found myself approaching populated places. Passing through a red
light was like a sip of forbidden Burgundy when I was a child. Meanwhile
complications were arising. I was being followed and escorted. Then in front
of me I saw two cars placing themselves in such a manner as to completely
block my way. With a graceful movement I turned off the road, and after two
or three big bounces, rode up a grassy slope, among surprised cows, and
there I came to a gentle rocking stop. A kind of thoughtful Hegelian
synthesis linking up two dead women.
I was soon to be taken out of the car (Hi, Melmoth, thanks a lot, old
fellow)–and was, indeed, looking forward to surrender myself to many hands,
without doing anything to cooperate, while they moved and carried me,
relaxed, comfortable, surrendering myself lazily, like a patient, and
deriving an eerie enjoyment from my limpness and the absolutely reliable
support given me by the police and the ambulance people. And while I was
waiting for them to run up to me on the high slope, I evoked a last mirage
of wonder and hopelessness. One day, soon after her disappearance, an attack
of abominable nausea forced me to pull up on the ghost of an old mountain
road that now accompanied, now traversed a brand new highway, with its
population of asters bathing in the detached warmth of a pale-blue afternoon
in late summer. After coughing myself inside out, I rested a while on a
boulder, and then, thinking the sweet air might do me good, walked a little
way toward a low stone parapet on the precipice side of the highway. Small
grasshoppers spurted out of the withered roadside weeds. A very light cloud
was opening its arms and moving toward a slightly more substantial one
belonging to another, more sluggish, heavenlogged system. As I approached
the friendly abyss, I grew aware of a melodious unity of sounds rising like
vapor from a small mining town that lay at my feet, in a fold of the valley.
One could make out the geometry of the streets between blocks of red and
gray roofs, and green puffs of trees, and a serpentine stream, and the rich,
ore-like glitter of the city dump, and beyond the town, roads crisscrossing
the crazy quilt of dark and pale fields, and behind it all, great timbered
mountains. But even brighter than those quietly rejoicing colors–for there
are colors and shades that seem to enjoy themselves in good company–both
brighter and dreamier to the ear than they were to the eye, was that vapory
vibration of accumulated sounds that never ceased for a moment, as it rose
to the lip of granite where I stood wiping my foul mouth. And soon I
realized that all these sounds were of one nature, that no other sounds but
these came from the streets of the transparent town, with the women at home
and the men away. Reader! What I heard was but the melody of children at
play, nothing but that, and so limpid was the air that within this vapor of
blended voices, majestic and minute, remote and magically near, frank and
divinely enigmatic–one could hear now and then, as if released, an almost
articulate spurt of vivid laughter, or the crack of a bat, or the clatter of
a toy wagon, but it was all really too far for the eye to distinguish any
movement in the lightly etched streets. I stood listening to that musical
vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a
kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly
poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her
voice from that concord.
This then is my story. I have reread it. It has bits of marrow sticking
to it, and blood, and beautiful bright-green flies. At this or that twist of
it I feel my slippery self eluding me, gliding into deeper and darker waters
than I care to probe. I have camouflaged what I could so as not to hurt
people. And I have toyed with many pseudonyms for myself before I hit on a
particularly apt one. There are in my notes “Otto Otto” and “Mesmer Mesmer”
and “Lambert Lambert,” but for some reason I think my choice expresses the
nastiness best.
When I started, fifty-six days ago, to write Lolita, first in
the psychopathic ward for observation, and then in this well-heated, albeit
tombal, seclusion, I thought I would use these notes in toto at my trial, to
save not my head, of course, but my soul. In mind-composition, however, I
realized that I could not parade living Lolita. I still may use parts of
this memoir in hermetic sessions, but publication is to be deferred.
For reasons that may appear more obvious than they really are, I am
opposed to capital punishment; this attitude will be, I trust, shared by the
sentencing judge. Had I come before myself, I would have given Humbert at
least thirty-five years for rape, and dismissed the rest of the charges. But
even so, Dolly Schiller will probably survive me by many years. The
following decision I make with all the legal impact and support of a signed
testament: I wish this memoir to be published only when Lolita is no longer
alive.
Thus, neither of us is alive when the reader opens this book. But while
the blood still throbs through my writing hand, you are still as much part
of blessed matter as I am, and I can still talk to you from here to Alaska.
Be true to your Dick. Do not let other fellows touch you. Do not talk to
strangers. I hope you will love your baby. I hope it will be a boy. That
husband of yours, I hope, will always treat you well, because otherwise my
specter shall come at him, like black smoke, like a demented giant, and pull
him apart nerve by nerve. And do not pity C. Q. One had to choose between
him and H.H., and one wanted H.H. to exist at least a couple of months
longer, so as to have him make you live in the minds of later generations. I
am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic
sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may
share, my Lolita.