Mount Wonder: An Excerpt

This is a selection from the recently published novel, Mount Wonder, by Scott J. Bloch, based on the radical experiment in liberal arts education at the University of Kansas in the 1970s, the Integrated Humanities Program, taught by noted Catholic educator and writer, John Senior, and his colleagues, Dennis Quinn and Frank Nelick. They took radicals from the 1960s and early 1970s and exposed them to delight in education, in poetry, star gazing, and the ideas in the great books, as if truth were possible. They focused on drawing out students’ innate sense of wonder and awe. The narrator is an agnostic student who encounters these three controversial professors who challenge his understanding of the purposes of education and his own life.

Mr. Bloch grew up in Woodland Hills, California, and his parents were active in Hollywood. His grandfather was Albert Bloch, who was a member of Der Blaue Reiter (the Blue Rider) association of German expressionist artists. Mr. Bloch wrote and produced a documentary film about his grandfather, AB. He is also the author of The Essential Belloc: A Prophet for Our Times.

Mount Wonder is a wonderfully engaging novel, and we strongly encourage our readers to buy a copy and support Mr. Bloch’s excellent talent.

Metaphysical Streaking

“Is the Good being able to do whatever you please, whenever you please?” asked Courtney. “Rousseau says that men were born free, but ‘everywhere I see them in chains.’ He thinks that the Good is returning to a state of being where laws are made to fit our pursuit of nature, of the savage pursuit of happiness. Certainly, that is what Lucretius saw. But what does Plato say about that?”

We were intently participating in the conversation even though we said nothing, silent acolytes to the sacrament of pure reason.

“Why is it you are unhappy, when you spend so much time pursuing happiness?” asked Marin. I leaned forward. “Is it because of civilization and its discontents? Are you simply Freudian fruits, destined to be unhappy? Or is it your way of looking at happiness that sows your discontent? Instead of looking inward for the good of your own navel, how about the common good? What ever became of virtue? Ordering yourself to what is good. Or have you forgotten about that? There was a time when it was a betrayal of your country to protest in favor of your country’s enemy.”

“O, Fred, don’t attack their war protests,” said Whelan. “They’re primed for betrayal of the West. They have already determined that Judas was just a guy who needed therapy. Just a higher dose of Thorazine.”

Marin stood, bellicose, ready to pounce: “Is there anything . . . or anyone . . . you atomists would not betray?” Courtney came back in, rescued us, and drew us back to Plato.

“Plato has a rhetoric. It is the pursuit of Truth through the appeal to knowledge, empathy, and emotions. This is an order of Truth, you see. So Plato’s answer is to ask about the common good. What is justice?”

“Well, what is it?” asked Marin. He turned to Courtney and sneered, “They didn’t read the text, did they? All of you are little Thrasymachuses from the Republic. Socrates tells you, mind your own business. That’s justice. Every person doing his own business. Know thyself, all you Greeks. Are you minding your own business, or are you poking in the business of others?”

I was supposed to be pursuing business all right, but it wasn’t my business. It was the Floor King’s business, and the university wanted to make my business the business of everyone else.

“We’re asking you to take Plato and Western civilization seriously,” said Whelan. “We’re asking you to do something your generation does not like to do. It does not like to look at the past and ask, What did these people think? and take what they say on their own terms.”

“To think presupposes that there is a form for thought,” interjected a quiet Courtney, rescuing us from Marin’s diatribe, “that there is a human nature to think about. That is, you are constantly under a barrage of democratic talk, such as ‘That’s all a matter of opinion.’ ‘One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.’ And while these things have some application to our emotions and the way in which we choose houses and clothes, they have no real application to reality and the ethical choices we make in our lives.”

Courtney stopped and stared at the ground, just warming up.

“That is,” he resumed with greater excitement, “when we make these choices, we act as if there is Truth. When you leave this lecture hall, you’re going to open the door—aren’t you?—and walk through it.”

“You’re all either agnostics or Gnostics,” said Marin. “Chester, I don’t think they understand the words.” He smiled sarcastically and looked at the class. “You think it’s all in your head—reality—don’t you? You’re all a bunch of damn angels. But when you drive your car, all of you follow Newton’s laws to a tee. You don’t jump off buildings, do you?” Marin spat the words out contemptuously.

“You see,” said Whelan, “either this is a room or it is not. It is not both true for me and untrue for you that I am speaking right now. And when you say ‘There is no Truth’ you have uttered Truth, a categorical imperative.”

“The square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other side,” said Courtney.

“You could not get up in the morning if you questioned that,” Marin said. “You think Pythagoras is math? It’s Beauty. only Euclid has looked on Beauty bare. They’re blushing, Paul.”

“Plato wants us to examine Beauty,” said Courtney, “and he shows us Aphrodite, the goddess of love, both of spiritual and physical beauty.”

Aphrodite was the Greek name for Venus.

“Consider what Plato said, that the unexamined life is not worth living.” Courtney was looking out at us now, not looking down in his usual detached way. “You read in Herodotus about Croesus. He is you. You look out on your life and wonder, ‘How will I live my life? will I be successful, rich, liked by people? Will I marry, will I be a good husband or wife, a good parent?’ Does leading a life dedicated to the pursuit of wealth bring happiness? Herodotus asked that question. Croesus had it all. But was he happy? Remember what Herodotus said: until a man is dead, reserve the question of whether he is happy.”

“Socrates says that all philosophy is a meditation on death,” said Whelan. “And that meditation is about life and happiness in light of the end of man. We dare to ask these questions. We have not given up on the examined life or on the pursuit of the Good—of real happiness, contentment, and even something the Greek and Roman culture saw as transcendent. Here’s the real question: Is the West worth preserving?”

Then the whistle screeched on campus, upsetting a lacuna of silence.

“At least go to the world of poetry,” said Marin. “Don’t you know, your love really is like a red, red rose, and her enduring young charms are fairy-gifts fading away? Wake up, damn it, youth’s a stuff ‘twill not endure.”

Not a body moved.

“What does Plato say about Beauty?” asked Courtney. He pulled out his Plato and read to us: “‘When a man has been thus far tutored in the love of love, passing from view to view of beautiful things, in the right and regular ascent, suddenly he will have revealed to him, as he draws to the close of his dealings with love, a wondrous vision, beautiful in its nature.’” Courtney looked up: “What is he talking about? Isn’t it the state of wonder, awe? And when in that state, you will begin to see beyond passion or emotion—to something more beautiful and delightful—you begin to see the Truth.”

“Oh, Paul . . . you shouldn’t say that word—Truth—without qualifiers.” Whelan had a mocking, sarcastic tone. “I mean, it’s not right—no parenthesis, no quote marks, just naked Truth. My God, it’s metaphysical streaking.”

The class erupted at the mention of what so typified this generation. The emperor may have had no clothes, but now, neither did his pupils.

“It catches up with you,” said Courtney. “You will want the Good even as you realize you lack the virtue to achieve the Good. And then your life will really start. After you really read Plato, you will never be the same again.”

Studies In The Literature Of Sherlock Holmes

This essay by Ronald Knox created and established the Sherlockian tradition of the “Great Game,” in which the stories about Sherlock Holmes are treated as true and are then carefully placed within the context of history, literature and philosophy, Knox wrote this essay in 1911, and it was published in 1912. It forever changed the status of Sherlock Holmes.

We give below the entire essay, with the various Greek and Latin passages Englished, and references annotated.

If there is anything pleasant in life, it is doing what we aren’t meant to do. If there is anything pleasant in criticism, it is finding out what we aren’t meant to find out. It is the method by which we treat as significant what the author did not mean to be significant, by which we single out as essential what the author regarded as incidental. Thus, if one brings out a book on turnips, the modern scholar tries to discover from it whether the author was on good terms with his wife; if a poet writes on buttercups, every word he says may be used as evidence against him at an inquest of his views on a future existence. On this fascinating principle, we delight to extort economic evidence from Aristophanes, because Aristophanes knew nothing of economics: we try to extract cryptograms from Shakespeare, because we are inwardly certain that Shakespeare never put them there: we sift and winnow the Gospel of St. Luke, in order to produce a Synoptic problem, because St. Luke, poor man, never knew the Synoptic problem to exist.

There is, however, a special fascination in applying this method to Sherlock Holmes, because it is, in a sense, Holmes’s own method. “It has long been an axiom of mine,” he says, “that the little things are infinitely the most important.” It might be the motto of his life’s work. And it is, is it not, as we clergymen say, by the little things, the apparently unimportant things, that we judge of a man’s character.

If anyone objects, that the study of Holmes literature is unworthy of scholarly attention, I might content myself with replying that to the scholarly mind anything is worthy of study, if that study be thorough and systematic. But I will go further, and say that if at the present time we need a far closer familiarity with Sherlock’s methods. The evil that he did lived after him, the good is interred with him in the Reichenbach. It is a known fact, that is, that several people contracted the dirty and deleterious habit of taking cocaine as a result of reading the books. It is equally obvious that Scotland Yard has benefited not a whit either by his satire or by his example. When Holmes, in the “Mystery of the Red-Headed League,” discovered that certain criminals were burrowing their way into the cellars of a bank, he sat with a dark lantern in the cellar, and nabbed them quietly as they cam through. But when the Houndsditch gang were found to be meditating an exactly similar design, what did the police authorities do? They sent a small detachment of constables, who battered on the door of the scene of operations at the bank, shouting, “We think there is a burglary going on in here.” They were of course shot down, and the Home Office had to call out a whole regiment with guns and a fire brigade, in order to hunt down the survivors.

Any studies in Sherlock Holmes must be, first and foremost, studies in Dr. Watson. Let us treat at once of the literary and bibliographical aspects of the question. First, as to authenticity. There are several grave inconsistencies in the Holmes cycle. For example the Study in Scarlet and the Reminiscences are from the hand of John H. Watson, M.D., but in the story of “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” Mrs. Watson addresses her husband as James. The present writer, together with three brothers, wrote to ask Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for an explanation, appending their names in the proper style with crosses after them, and an indication that this was the sign of the Four. The answer was that it was an error, an error, in fact of editing. “Nihil aliud hic latet,” says the great Sauwosch, “nisi redactor ignoratissimus” [Nothing else is hidden here except the ignorant redactor]. Yet this error gave the original impetus to Backnecke theory of the Deutero-Watson, to whom he assigns the Study in Scarlet, the “Gloria Scott,” and the “Return of Sherlock Holmes.” He leaves to the proto-Watson the rest of the Memoirs, the Adventures, the Sign of Four and the Hound of the Baskervilles. He disputed the Study in Scarlet on other grounds, the statement in it, for example, that Holmes’s knowledge of literature and philosophy was nil, whereas it is clear and the true Holmes was a man of wide reading and deep thought. We shall deal with this in its proper place.

The “Gloria Scott” is condemned by Backnecke partly on the ground of the statement that Holmes was only up for two years at College, while he speaks in the “Musgrave Ritual” of “my last years” at the University; which Backnecke supposes to prove that the two stories do not come from the same hand. The “Gloria Scott” further represents Percy Trevor’s bull-dog as having bitten Holmes on his way down to Chapel, which is clearly untrue, since dogs are not allowed within the gates at either university. “The bull-dog is more at home” he adds “on the Chapel steps, that this fraudulent imitation among the divine products of the Watson-genius.” A further objection to the “Gloria Scott” is that it exhibits only four divisions out of the eleven-fold division (to be mentioned later) of the complete Holmes-episode, a lower percentage than is found in any other genuine story. For myself, however, I am content to believe that this irregularity is due merely to the exception character of the investigation, while the two inaccuracies are too slight (me judice, in my judgment) to form the basis for so elaborate a theory. I would include both the “Gloria Scott” and the Study in Scarlet as genuine incidents of the Holmes-biography.

When we come to the “Final Problem,” the alleged death of Holmes, and his subsequent return in an unimpaired and even vigorous condition, the problem grows darker. Some critics, accepting the Return stories as genuine, regard the “Final Problem” as an incident faked by Watson for his own purposes; thus M. Piff-Pouff represents it as an old dodge of the thaumaturgist, and quotes the example of Salmoxis or Gebeleizis among the Getae, who hid underground for two years, and then returned to preach the doctrine of immortality. In fact, M. Piff-Pouff’s verdict is thus expressed: “Sherlock Holmes has not at all fallen from the Reichenbach, it is Vatson who has fallen from the pinnacle of his mendacity.” In a similar vein, Bilgemann asserts that the episode is a weak imitation of Empodocles on Etna, the alpenstock being left behind to represent the famous slipper which was revomited by the volcano. “The episode of the ‘Final Problem,’ in his own immortal language, “has the Watsons-applecart completely overturned.”

Others, Backnecke of course among them, regard the “Final Problem” as genuine, and the Return stories as a fabrication. The evidence against these stories may be divided into (a) those suggested by changes in the character and methods of Holmes, (b) those resting on impossibilities in the narrative itself, (c) inconsistencies found by comparison with previous narrative.

(a) The true Holmes is never discourteous to a client: the Holmes of the “The Adventure of the Three Students” “shrugged his shoulders in ungracious acquiescence while our visitor… poured fourth his story.” On the other hand, the true Holmes has no morbid craving for serious crime, but when John Hector Macfarlane talks of the probability of being arrested, the detective is represented as saying “Arrest you! This is most grati — most interesting.” Twice in the Return he gibes at his prisoner, a habit from which the true Holmes, whether from professional etiquette of for other reasons, invariably abstains. Again, the false Holmes actually calls a client by her Christian name, an impossible thing to an author whose views had not been distorted by the erroneous presentation of him in the play. He deliberately abstains from food while at work: the real Holmes only does so through absent-mindedness, as in the “Case of the Five Orange Pips.” He quotes Shakespeare in these stories alone, and that three times, without acknowledgement. He gives way to ludicrously bad logic in the “Dancing men.” He sends Watson as his emissary in the “Solitary cyclist,” and this is elsewhere unparalleled, for in the Hound of the Baskervilles he himself goes down to Dartmoor as well, to watch the case incognito. The true Holmes never splits and infinitive; the Holmes of the Return-stories splits at least three.

(b) It is likely that a University scholarship paper—nay, an Oxford scholarship paper, for the Quadrangle is mentioned in connexion with it—should be printed only one day before the examination? That it should consist of only half a chapter of Thucydides? That this half-chapter should take the examiner an hour and a half to correct for the press? That the proofs of the half-chapter should be in three consecutives slips? Moreover, if a pencil was marked with the name JOHANN FABER, how could the two letters NN, and these two only, be left on the stump? Prof. J. A. Smith has further pointed out that it would be impossible to find out from the superimposition of the tracks of front and back bicycle tyres, whether the cyclist was going or coming.

(c) As to actual inconsistencies. In the mystery of the “Solitary Cyclist” a marriage is performed with no one present except the happy couple and the officiating clergyman. In the “Scandal in Bohemia” Holmes, disguised as a loafer, is deliberately called in to give away an unknown bride on the ground that the marriage will not be valid without a witness. In the “Final Problem,” the police secure “the whole gang with the exception of Moriarty.” In the “Story of the Empty House” we hear that they failed to incriminate Colonel Moran. Professor Moriarty, in the Return is called Professor James Moriarty whereas know from the “Final Problem” that James was really the name of his military brother, who survived him. And, worst of all, the dummy in the Baker Street window is draped in “the old mouse-coloured dressing-gown!” As if we had forgotten that it was a blue dressing-gown that Holmes smoked an ounce of shag tobacco at a sitting, while he unraveled the dark complication of “The Man with the Twisted Lip!” “The detective,” says M. Papier Mache, “has become a chameleon.” “This is not the first time,” says the more ponderous Sauwosch, “that a coat of many colours has been as a deception used! But in truth Sherlock, our modern Joseph, has altogether disappeared, and the evil beast Watson has him devoured.”

To this criticism I assent: I cannot assent, however, to the theory of the deutero-Watson. I believed that all the stories were written by Watson, but whereas the genuine cycle actually happened, the spurious adventures are the lucubrations of his own unaided invention. Surely we may reconstruct the facts thus. Watson has been a bit of a gad-about. He is a spendthrift: so much we know from the beginning of the Study in Scarlet. His brother, so Holmes finds out by examining the scratches on the keyhole of his watch, was a confirmed drunkard. He himself, as a bachelor, haunts the Criterion Bar: in the Sign of Four he admits having had too much Beaune for lunch, behaves strangely at lunch, spekes of firing off a double-barreled tiger-cub at a musket, and cautions his future wife against taking more than two drops of castor-oil, while recommending strychnine in large doses as a sedative. What happens? His Eligah is taken away from him: his wife, as we know dies: he slips back into the grip of his old enemy; his practice, already diminished by continued neglect, vanishes away; he is forced to earn a livelihood by patching together clumsy travesties of the wonderful incidents of which he was once the faithful recorder.

Sauwosch has even worked out an elaborate table of his debts to other authors, and to the earlier stories. Holmes’s stay in Thibet with the Grand Lama is due to Dr. Nikola; the cipher of the “Dancing Men” is read in the same manner as that in the “Gold Bug,” by Edgar Allen Poe; the “Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” shows the influence of Raffles; the “Norwood Builder” owes much to the “Scandal in Bohemia;” the “Solitary Cyclist” has the plot of the “Greek Interpreter;” the “Six Napoleons” of the “Blue Carbuncle;” the “Adventure of the Second Stain” is a doublet of the “Naval Treaty,” and so on.

We now pass on to the dating of the various pieces, so far as it can be determined by internal evidence, implicit or explicit. The results may be tabulated thus:

(1) The “Gloria Scott”—Holmes’s first case. (2) The “Musgrave Ritual”—his second. (3) The Study in Scarlet—Watson first appears, i.e., the first of the We-Stories, date 1879. (4) 1883, the “Speckled Band.” (5) 1887, April, the “Reigate Squires.” (6) Same year, the “Five Orange Pips.” (7) 1888, “The Sign of Four”—Watson becomes engaged. (8) “The “Noble Bachelor.” Then comes “Watson’s Wedding,” followed closely by (9) The “Crooked Man.” (10) “The Scandal in Bohemia,” and (11) The “Naval Treaty,” apparently in that order.

To some period in the year ’88 we must assign 12, 13, and 14, that is, the “Stockbroker’s Clerk,” the “Case of Identity,” and the “Red-Headed League.” In the June of ’89 we have (15) the “Man with the Twisted Lip,” (16) the “Engineer’s Thumb” (summer), and (17) the “Blue Carbuncle” (somewhere in the octave of Christmas). The “Final Problem” is dated ’91. Of the remainder, “Silver Blaze,” the “Yellow Face,” the “Resident Patient,” the “Greek Interpreter,” the “Beryl Coronet,” and the “Copper Beeches” are apparently before “Watson’s Wedding,” the “Boscombe Valley Mystery” after it: otherwise they are undated.

There remains only the Hound of the Baskervilles. This is explicitly dated 1889, that is, it does not pretend to be after the Return. Sauwosch, who believes it to be spurious, points out that the Times would never have had a leader on free Trade till after 1903. But this argument from internal evidence defeats itself: we can show by a method somewhat akin to that of Blunt’s Undesigned Coincidences in Holy Scriptures that it was meant to be before 1903. The old crank who wants to have a law-suit against the police says it will be known as the case of Frankland versus REGINA—King Edward, as we all know, succeeded in 1901.

I must not waste time over other evidences (very unsatisfactory) which have been adduced to show the spuriousness of the Hound of the Baskervilles. Holmes’s cat-like love of personal cleanliness is not really inconsistent with the statement in the Study in Scarlet that he had pinpricks all over his hand covered with plaster – though this is also used by Backnecke to tell against the genuineness of the earlier production. A more serious question is that of Watson’s breakfast-hour. Both in the Study in Scarlet and in the Adventures we hear that Watson breakfasted after Holmes: in the Hound we are told that Holmes breakfasted late. But, then, the true inference from this is that Watson breakfasted very late indeed.

Taking, then, as the basis of our study, the three long stories, The Sign of Four, A Study in Scarlet, and The Hound of the Baskervilles, together with the twenty-three short stories, twelve in the Adventures, and eleven in the Memoirs, we may proceed to examine the construction and the literary antecedents of this form of art. The actual scheme of each should consist, according to the German scholar, Ratzegger, followed by most of his successors, of eleven distinct parts; the order of them may in some cases be changed about, and more or less of them may appear as the story is closer to or further from the ideal type. Only A Study in Scarlet exhibits all of the eleven; The Sign of Four and “Silver Blaze” have ten, the “Boscombe Valley Mystery” and the “Beryl Coronet” nine, the Hound of the Baskervilles, the “Speckled Band,” the “Reigate Squires,” and The Naval Treaty” eight, and so on till we reach “The Five Orange Pips,” “The Crooked Man,” and “The Final Problem” with five, and the “Gloria Scott” with only four.

The first part is the Proömion [Preface], a homely Baker Street scene, with invaluable personal touches, and sometimes a demonstration by the detective. Then follows the first explanation, or Exegesis kata ton diokonta [exegesis according to the perrsecutor], that is, the client’s statement of the case, followed by the Ichneusis [Tracking], or personal investigation, often including the famous floor-walk on hands and knees. No. 1 is invariable, Nos. 2 and 3 almost always present. Nos. 4, 5 and 6 are less necessary: they include the Anaskeue, or refutation on its own merits of the official theory of Scotland Yard, the first Promenusis [inspection] (exoterike, external) which gives a few stray hints to the police, which they never adopt, and the second Promenusis (esoterike, internal), which adumbrates the true course of the investigation to Watson alone. This is sometimes wrong, as in the “Yellow Face.” No. 7 is the Exetasis [examination] or further following up of the trial, including the cross-questioning of relatives, dependents, etc., of the corpse (if there is one), visits to the Record Office, and various investigations in an assumed character. No. 8 is the Anagnorisis [dénouement], in which the criminal is caught or exposed. No. 9 the second Exegesis (kata ton pheugonta, concerning the pursuit), that is to say the criminal’s confession, No. 10 the Metamenusis [post-analysys], in which Holmes describes what his clues were and how he followed them, and No. 11 the epilogos [conclusion], sometimes comprised in a single sentence. This conclusion is, like the Proömion, invariable, and often contains a gnome or quotation from some standard author.

Although the Study in Scarlet is in a certain sense the type and ideal of a Holmes story, it is also to some extent a primitive type, of which elements were later discarded. The Exegesis kata ton pheugonta is told for the most part, not in the words of the criminal, but as a separate story in the mouth of the narrator: it occupies a disproportionate amount of the total space. This shows directly the influence of Gaboriau: his Detective’s Dilemma is one volume, containing an account of the tracing of the crime back to its author, who is of course a duke: the second volume, the Detective’s Triumph, is almost entirely a retailing of the duke’s family history, dating back to the Revolution, and we only rejoin Lecoq, the detective, in the last chapter. Of course, this method of telling the story was found long and cumbrous, but the French school has not yet seen through it, since the “Mystery of the Yellow Room” leaves a whole unexplained problem to provide copy for “The Perfume of the Lady in Black.”

But the literary affinities of Dr. Watson’s masterly style are to be looked for further afield than Gaboriau, or Poe, or Wilkie Collins. M. Piff-Pouff especially, in his Psychologie de Vatson, has instituted some very remarkable parallels with the Dialogues of Plato, and with the Greek drama. He reminds us of the blustering manner of Thrasymachus when he first breaks into the argument of the Republic, and compares the entry of Athelney Jones: “Oh, come, now, come! Never be ashamed to own up! But what’s all this? Bad business, bad business! Stern facts here, no room for theories,” and so on. And when the detective comes back crestfallen after a few days, wiping his brow with a red handkerchief, we remember how Socrates describes the first time in his life when he ever saw Thrasymachus blushing. The rival theories of Gregson and Lestrade only serve to illustrate the multiformity of error.

But the most important point is the nature of the Scotland Yard criticism. Lecoq has his rival, but the rival is his own superior in the detective force, thwarts his schemes out of pique, and actually connives at the prisoner’s receiving notes through the window of his cell. The jealousy of a Lestrade has none of this paltry spirit about it; it is a combination of intellectual pride and professional pique. It is the opposition of the regular force to the amateur. Socrates was hated by the sophists because they took money, and he did not. The cases in which Holmes takes money, explicitly at any rate, are few. In the “Scandal in Bohemia” he is given £1, 000, but this would seem to be only for current expenses, and my well have been refunded. At the end, he refuses the gift of an emerald ring. He will not allow the City and Suburban Bank to do more than pay his expenses in connection with the “Red-Headed League.” He says the same elsewhere: “As for my reward, my profession is my reward.” On the other hand he takes £4, 000 from Mr. Holder when he has recovered the missing beryls for £3, 000. In A Study in Scarlet, when setting out in business, he says: “I listen to their story, they listen to my comments, and then I pocket my fee.” In the “Greek Interpreter” he affirms that detection is a means of livelihood with him. And in the “Final Problem” we hear that he has been so well paid for his services in several instances to crowed heads that he is thinking of retiring from business and taking to chemistry. We must suppose, therefore, that he did sometimes take payment, but perhaps only where his clients could well afford it. None the less, as compared with the officials, he is a free lance: he has no axe to grind, no promotion to seek. And further, there is an antithesis of method. Holmes is determined not to be led away by side issues and apparent pressure of facts: this it is that raises him above the level of the sophists.

If the sophists have been borrowed from the Platonic dialogue, one element at least had been borrowed from the Greek drama. Gaboriau has no Watson. The confidant of Lecoq is an old soldier, preternaturally stupid, inconceivably inefficient. Watson provides what the Holmes drama needs—a Chorus. He represents the solid, orthodox, respectable view of the world in general; his drabness is accentuated by contrast with the limelight which beats upon the central figure. He remains stable amid the eddy and flux of circumstance.

Ille bonis faveatque, et consiletur amicis, Et regat iratos, et amet peccare timentes; Ille dapes laudet mensae brevis, ille salubrem Justitium, legasque, et apertis otia portis. Ille tegat commissa, deosque precetur et oret wut redeat miseris, abeat fortuna superbis (Let it [the Chorus] favor the good, and render friendly counsel, and let it sway the angry, and love those who fear to sin. One the one hand, it should praise the banquet of the mwager table, and on the other wholesome justice, and the laws, and the gates of peace being opened. Let it shroud its entreaties, and let it pray and beg the gods that fortune may return to the wretched, and depart from the proud (Horace, Ars Poetica, 96-102).

It is professor Sabaglione that we owe the profoundest study of Watson in his choric character. He compares such passages at that in the “Specked Band”:

Holmes: “The lady could not move her bed. It must always be in the same relative position to the ventilator and the rope – for such we may call it, since it was clearly never meant for a bell-pull.”

Watson: “Holmes, I seem to see what you are hinting at. We are only jus in time to prevent some subtle and horrible crime.”

with the well-know passage in the Agamemnon:

Cassandra: “Ah, ah, keep away the bull from the cow! She takes him, the black-horned one, in a net by her device, and smites him; he falls in a watery vessel – I speak to thee of the Mystery of the Treacherous Cauldron” (1125).

Chorus: “Far be it from me to boast of any particular skill in oracles, but I deduce from these words some impending evil” (1130).

Watson, like the Chorus, is ever in touch with the main action, and seems to share the full privileges of the audience; yet, like the Chorus, he is always about three stages behind the audience in the unraveling of the plot.

And the seal, and symbol, and secret of Watson is, of course, his bowler. It is not like other bowlers; it is a priestly vestment, an insigne of office. Holmes may wear a squash hat, but Watson cleaves to his bowler, even at midnight in the silence of Dartmoor, or on the solitary slopes of the Reichenbach. He wears it constantly, even as the archimandrite or the rabbi wears his hat: to remove it would be akin to the shearing of Samson’s locks by Delilah. “Watson and his bowler” says M. Piff-Pouff, “they are separable only in thought.” It is his apex of wool, his petasus of invisibility, his mitra pretiosa, his triple tiara, his halo. The bowler stand for all that is immutable and irrefragable, for law and justice, for the established order of things, for the rights of humanity, for the triumph of the man over the brute. It towers colossal over sordidness and misery and crime: it shames and heals and hallows. The curve of its brim is the curve of perfect symmetry; the rotundity of its crown is the rotundity of the world. ‘From the hats of Holmes’s clients,’ writes Professor Sabaglione, ‘deduce themselves the trains, the habits, the idiosyncrasies: from the hat of Watson deduces itself his character.’ Watson is everything to Holmes – his medical adviser, his foil, his philosopher, his confidant, his sympathizer, his biographer, his domestic chaplain, but above all things else he stands exalted in history as the wearer of the unconquerable bowler hat.

And if the rival detectives are the sophists and Watson is the Chorus, what of the clients, and what of the criminals? It is most important to remember that these are only secondary figures. “The murderers of the Holmes cycle,” M. Papier Mache assures us, “are of no more importance than the murderers are not in Macbeth.” Holmes himself often deprecates Watson’s habit of making the stories too sensational, but he does him an injustice. The authors of crime are not, in Watson, of personal interest, like the Duke in Gaboriau; they have no relation to the detective other than that which subsists between the sleuth-hound and its quarry – the author of the “Mystery of the Yellow Room” was a bungler when he made Jacques Rouletbille the criminal’s natural son – they are not animated by lofty of religious motives like the high-flown villains in Mr. Chesterton’s Innocence of Father Brown. All clients are model clients: they state their case in flawless journalese; all criminals are model criminals; they do the cleverest thing a criminal could possibly do in the given circumstances. By a sort of Socratic paradox, we might say that the best detective can only catch the best thief. A single blunder on the part of the guilty man would have thrown all Holmes’s deductions out of joint. Love and money are their only incentives: brutality and cunning their indefeasible qualities.

And thus we arrive at the central figure himself, and must try to gather together a few threads in the complex and many—sided character. There is an irony in the process, for Holmes liked to look upon himself as a machine, an inhuman and undifferentiated sleuth-hound. L’Homme, c’est rien; l’oeuvre, c’est tout (“man is nothing, his work is everything”), was one of his favourite quotations.

Sherlock Holmes was descended from a long line of country squires: his grandmother was the sister of a French artist: his elder brother Mycroft was, as we all know, more gifted than himself, but found an occupation, if the Reminscences are to be trusted, in a confidential audit of Government accounts. Of Sherlock’s school career we know nothing; Watson was at school, and one of his schoolmates was the nephew of a peer, but this seems to have been exceptional there, since it was considered good fun to “chevy him about the playground and hit him over the shins with a wicket.” This seems to dispose of the idea that Watson was an Etonian. On the other hand, we have no evidence as to his University career, except the testimony (always doubtful) of one of the Return stories that he was unacquainted with the scenery of Cambridgeshire. Of Holmes’s student days our knowledge is much fuller; he was reserved by nature, and his recreations – boxing and fencing – did not make him many acquaintances. One of his friends was Percy Trevor, son of an ex-convict, who had made his money in the Australian goldfields; another Reginald Musgrave, whose ancestors went back to the Conquest – quite the last word in aristocracy. He lived in a College, but what College? And at which University? The argument that his scientific bent would have naturally taken him to Cambridge defeats itself, for why should he have been only up two years if he wanted a proper scientific training? More and more as I consider the wealth of his two friends, the exclusive aristocracy of the one, and the doggy tendencies of the other, together with the isolation which put even so brilliant a light as Holmes’s under a bushel – more and more I incline to the opinion that he was up at the House. But we have no sure evidence.

If he was an Oxford man, he was not a Greats’ man. Yet when Watson describes his first impressions of the man at the beginning of the Study in Scarlet – the locus classicus for Holmes’s characteristics – he wrongs him in saying that his knowledge of philosophy is nil, and his knowledge of literature is nil. The fact is, clearly, that Holmes did not let his talents appear till he had been living with Watson for some time, and had come to recognize his sterling qualities. In fact, he compares Hafiz with Horace, quotes Tacitus, Jean Paul, Flaubert, Goethe, and Thoreau, and reads Petrarch in a G.W.R. carriage. He has no definite interest in philosophy as such, yet he holds certain definite views on scientific method. A philosopher could not have said, ‘when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’ He could not have confused observation with inference, as Holmes does when he says, “Observations shows me you have been to the Post Office” judging by the mud on Watson’s boots. There must be inference here, though it may be called implicit inference, however rabid the transition of thought. Yet Holmes was no Sensationalist. What sublime confession of faith could a realist make that the remark in the Study in Scarlet: “I ought to know by this time that when a fact appears to be opposed to a long train of deductions, it invariably proves to be capable of bearing some other interpretation.”

And here I must say a word on the so-called “method of deduction.” M. Papier Mache has boldly asserted that it was stolen from Gaboriau. M. Piff-Pouff in his well-known article, “Qu’est-ce que c’est la deduction?” [What is Deduction] declares roundly that Holmes’s methods were inductive. The two fallacies rest on a common ground. Lecoq has observations: he notices footsteps on the snow. He has powers of inference for he can infer from such footsteps the behaviour of those who have left them. He has not the method of deduction – he never sits down and reasons out what is probable the man would have done next. Lecoq has his lens and his forceps: he has not the dressing-gown and the pipe. That is why he has to depend on mere chance, again and again, for picking up lost threads. Holmes no more depended on a chance than he prayed for a miracle. That is why Lecoq, baffled after a long investigation, has to have recourse to a sort of arm-chair detective, who, without leaving the arm-chair, tells him exactly what must have happened. It is wrong to call this latter character, as M. Papier Mache does, the original of Mycroft: he is the original, if you will, of Sherlock. Lecoq is but the Stanley Hopkins, almost the Lestrade, of his period. Holmes himself has explained for us the difference between observation (or inference) and deduction. It is by observation a posteriori that he recognizes Watson’s visit to the Post Office from the mud on his trousers; it is by deduction a priori that he knows he has been sending a telegram, since he has seen plenty of stamps and postcards in Watson’s desk.

Let us now take two pictures of Sherlock Holmes, the one at leisure, the other at work. Leisure was, of course, abhorrent to him – more so than to Watson. Watson says he was reckoned fleet of foot, but we have only his own word for it, and Holmes always beat him; beyond this alleged prowess we have no evidence of Watson’s athleticism, except that he could throw a rocket through a first-floor window. But Holmes had been a boxer and a fencer; during periods of enforced inactivity he fired a revolver at the opposite wall till he had “marked it with the patriotic device V.R.” Violin playing occupied leisure moments when Watson first knew him, but later it seems to be nothing more than a relaxation after hard work. And – this is very important – in this music was the exact antithesis of cocaine. We never hear of the drug being used in order to stimulate the mental faculties for hard work. All the stimulus needed he derived from tobacco. We all know, of course, that he smoked shag: few people could say off-hand what his pipe was made of. As a matter of fact, his tastes were various. The long vigil in Neville St. Clair’s house was solaced by a briar – this is when he is hard at work; when he sees his way through a problem bin inspection, as in the “Case of Identity,” he takes down “the old and oily clay pipe, which was to him as a counselor.” In the “Copper Beeches” he takes down “The long cherrywood pipe with which he was wont to replace his clay when he was in a disputatious rather than a meditative mood.” On one occasion he offers Watson snuff. Watson, by the way, smoked Ship’s tobacco when he went into lodgings with Holmes, but must have replaced it soon after with a sterner stuff, thinly veiled under the nom de plume of Arcadia Mixture. This expensive product he did not abandon even under the exigencies of married life; though his circumstances were not those of affluence, since he had linoleum laid down in the front hall. But the pipe is not to Watson what it is to Holmes: to Holmes belongs the immortal phrase: “This will be a three-pipe problem.” He is one of the world’s great smokers.

Now let us see Holmes at work. We all know how brisk he becomes at the appearance of a client; how, according to the inimitable phrase in the Reminiscences: “Holmes sat up in his chair and took his pipe out of his mouth like a hound that has heard the View Halloo.” We have seen him in the mind’s eye prowling round the room with his nose an inch from the ground, on the look-out for cigarette-ends, orange-peel, false teeth, domes of silence, and what not, that my have been left behind by the criminal. “It is not a man,:” says M. Minsk, the great Polish critic, “it is either a beast or a god.”

It is this charge of inhumanity brought against Holmes that I wish specially to rebut. True, he is reported to have been found beating the dead subjects in the laboratory, to see whether or no bruises could be produced after death. True, he was a scientist. True, we get passages like that in the Sign of Four.

“Miss Morstan: From that day to this no world has been heard of my unfortunate father. He came home with his heart full of hope, to find some peace, some comfort, and instead—

She put her had to her throat, and a choking sob cut short her utterance. “‘The date?’ asked Holmes, opening his notebook.”

But is it true to say that Holmes’s anxiety to catch the criminal was not, like Watson’s, due to a passion for justice, but a purely scientific interest in deduction? Such truths are never more than half-0truths: it would be hard to say that the footballer plays only for the goal, or that he plays only for the sake of exercise. Humanity and science in Holmes are strangely blended. At one moment we find him saying “Women are never to be trusted, not even the best of them” (the coward!) or asserting that he cannot agree with those who rank modesty among the virtues, since the logician must see all things exactly as they are. Even his little sermon on the rose in the Naval Treaty is delivered in order to cover the fact that he is examining the window-frame for scratches. At another moment he is purchasing “something a little choice in white wines,” and discoursing on miracle plays, on Stradivarius violins, on the Buddhism of Ceylon, and on the warships of the future.

But there are two specially human characteristics which come out at the very moment of action. One is a taste for the theatrical arrangement, as when he sends back five orange pips to the murderers of John Openshaw, or takes a sponge into prison with which to unmask the man with the Twisted Lip, or serves up the Naval Treaty under a cover as a breakfast dish. The other is a taste for epigram. When he gets a letter from a duke, he says: “It looks like one of those social summonses which call upon a man either to be bored or to lie.” There is a special kind of epigram, known as the Sherlockismus, of which the indefatigable Ratzegger has collected no less than one hundred and seventy-three instances. The following may serve as examples:

“Let me call your attention to the curious incident of the dog in the night-time. The dog did nothing at all in the night-time. That was the curious incident,” said Sherlock Holmes.

And again:

“I was following you, of course.” “Following me? I saw nobody.” “That is what you must expect to see when I am following you,” said Sherlock Holmes.

To write fully on this subject would need two terms’ lectures at least. Some time, when leisure and enterprise allow, I hope to deliver them. Meanwhile, I have thrown out these hints, drawn these outlines of a possible mode of treatment. You know my methods, Watson: apply them.

Featured image: Illustration for “The Adventure of Silver Blaze,” by Sidney Paget, 1892.

The Leaven Of The Heart

We are so very pleased to bring to our readers the first translation into English of a short story by Ignazio Silone (1900-1978). This story (in Italian, Il lievito del cuore) was published in 1956, in the magazine Prospettive Meridionali. Silone, novelist and short-story writer, was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize. His most famous novels are Fontamara, Bread and Wine, and the Secret of Luca.

A truck sped along a flat paved road, lined with young poplar, locust and elm trees. It was the month of August, just after the wheat had been threshed. The truck passed a roadside billboard that read: FUCINO CORPORATION—BORGONUOVO RESIDENTIAL VILLAGE.

Right after appeared the village. From a distance, it appeared to be of recent construction. In all, about fifty two-story farmhouses, with four rooms each. On village piazza, the usual Sunday crowd of peasants, broken up into many groups talking animatedly. In the middle of the piazza, a large fountain: on one side the church; on the other a shed for the storage of farm machinery and work tools. Some large posters, planted on the four corners of the piazza, showed graphs and statistics on the early results of land reform throughout southern Italy. In the distance, silhouettes of other farmhouses under construction.

Under the canopy, some peasants looked curiously at a rotovator, which replaced the plow pulled by oxen for breaking up the clods of soil (the traditional ristruccatura). Others were being told about how a cereal weeder worked. But the dominant thrust of the conversations was sad. The harvest was meager, the wheat had blight and was shrunken; the ears were full, the grains empty. No one wanted to buy it; the farmers needed money and the prices of new wheat were low. What was going to happen at sowing? You can’t sow wheat that had rust.

The truck seen earlier stopped in the middle of the piazza, near the fountain, and the driver, a vigorous young man in shorts and a T-shirt, got out. He was immediately approached by some farmers who were waiting for him.

“Your final answer, Marco?” they asked him.

“No,” he replied.

A lively altercation ensued.

Marco refused to join the production and work cooperative. He was against cooperatives. He was for risk and individual profit. Others now took part in the discussion. The words got violent.

The cooperative was in a critical phase. Maybe it had made too many expenditures. Now it needed a truck and was unable to buy or rent one. Marco refused to work on credit.

“You’ve been a black marketeer and you’re still a black marketeer,” a young farmer, a certain Achille, shouted at him.

A scuffle ensued. Marco brutally knocked Achille down, but his shirt was also torn to shreds. At that moment, a group of believers, mostly women, came out of the nearby church. Some young men followed their girlfriends, from a safe distance.

A young woman, Silvia, Marco’s girlfriend and Achille’s sister, came near.

“What happened to you?” she asked them both, but talking mostly to her brother, who had a swollen eye.

“It was your black marketeer,” Achille replied.

The argument flared up again.

Silvia took her brother away and did not even reply to Marco who asked her to come with him to the cinema for the afternoon. Some of the farmers commented on Marco’s attitude. Yhey repeated their pros and cons, but the prevailing opinion was that the cooperative had failed and should be dissolved. Some had already resigned.

Two old peasants, evidently not from Borgo Nuovo, approached the fountain to water their donkeys. But Marco pushed them away. He had to put water into his truck.

One of the old men looked at Marco, first with curiosity, then smiling, and said to the other, “Don’t you recognize this young man? Look at him well. Doesn’t he look like the son of that good soul Antonio Orecchione?”

The other old man confirmed this. “Like him, it must be him.”

Marco heard the words of the two and asked resentfully: “What have you got against my father?”

“Against? Nothing,” one of the two old men answered him cheerfully. “I can really only wish you one thing. I wish you looked like him.”

“Did you know him?”

“We grew up together. We even did a little jail time together.”

After watering the donkeys, the two of them walked away.

“Do you know them? Who are they?” Marco asked a fruit dealer who had his cart near the fountain.

“They’re from Borgo Vecchio,” the fruit seller replied, mentioning the village on the hill. “One of them they call Biagio the basket maker.”

In the evening, Silvia waited in vain for Marco to make up. Some of her friends passed under her window and invited her to go for a walk. But she refused, giving some excuse. Irritated by her fiancé’s delay, she ended up bickering with her brother Achille, who took the opportunity to spill the beans on Marco.

“We do not know whose son he is,” he said. “His father died, was murdered. Great job reference. He grew up, he says, in an orphanage. But others say in a correctional facility. He’s fiercely selfish, shamelessly so. He has the mentality of a black marketeer, he wants to earn a lot, immediately and with little effort. While you’re waiting for him, maybe he’s with another girl.”

Silvia took refuge in her room and cried.

In the meantime, Marco had gone up to Borgo Vecchio, in search of Biagio the basket-maker.

On the hill, the land is harsh and bare. The houses of the village are poor, black, smoky; hovels and stables all in confusion. Marco left the truck at the entrance to the village and wandered through the alleys.

The contrast with Borgo Nuovo was striking. In a little piazza, a farmer was beating wheat the old-fashioned way, with a stick. A woman was fanning the lentils with the còscina, a wooden crate used at grape harvest. You could hear goats bleating and children crying. The old people sat on thresholds of houses and looked at Marco with indifference.

In one of the alleys, he meets an acquaintance.

“What are you doing here? I thought you were in Switzerland,” he told him.

“I was in fact there two years and now I’m back,” the other replied.

“How much did you earn up there?”‘

“More than here. With the money brought back I bought the vineyard.”

“Quit work? Why did you come back?”

“What do you mean, why? I was born and raised here. Money’s not everything.”

Marco looked at him with pity. What a fool. But he led him to Biagio’s house.

The old man was at the door and at once recognized Marco. He called his wife, the neighbors. “Guess who this is? Take a good look at his face.”

There was a general commotion.

“He looks like his father resurrected,” said one.

“Your face is like his, but are you like him in character too?” said another.

“I don’t know,” said Marco, “you know, I never knew him.”

Biagio invited the guest into the house and offered him a drink.

“It’s a light wine, but it’s from our vineyard,” he said.

The table was covered with a waxed canvas on which was depicted the Brooklyn Bridge, with the water of the East River phosphorescent.

“Have you been down there, too? Were you making good money? And why did you come back?”

“See, that’s a question your father wouldn’t have asked me,” Biagio told him.

“What was my father like? I know almost nothing about him. Some speak of him as a saint, others as a criminal,” said Marco.

“Neither one nor the other, but an honest man,” Biagio replied. “Let’s sit outside, in the cool air,” he suggested. “We’ll talk better.”

Marco, Biagio and his wife sat outside the door. In front of them lay the Fucino basin. At the edge of the basin, at the foot of the hill, the lights of Borgo Nuovo could be seen.

“At that time,” Biagio said, “life was difficult for honest men. They were times of misery. The phylloxera and the downy mildew ruined us. We ate meat once or twice a year. We walked barefoot. We saved the use of shoes for great occasions. Young people smoked corn leaves. We worked from dawn to dusk. We were paid a pittance. We still had oil lamps and wooden plows. Those who could, ran away. In November, every year we celebrated the ‘mass of the Americans,’ the mass for those who were leaving for America. Every year the church was full. The rest of us would be in the square every morning, waiting for a master or a farmer to call us for the day. Those who were not called would tighten their belts.

“As for strength of will to work no one was equal to Antonio Orecchione. He was a strong and generous young man, and always good company. For several years he was always first in the race of the straight furrow. He was unsurpassed in taming foals and calves. Only misfortune could reduce such a man to landlessness. In the same year, the flood took away his crops and his father broke his leg. When such misfortunes happen even once, you have to pay over a lifetime. Your father had to sell everything. There were worse things. As it is written in the Gospel, there were those who, though they had a thousand sheep, wanted the sheep of the poor man who had only one. To get it, in this case, he used the law, deception or violence.

“One year your father Antonio went to winter with the sheep in the Puglie. When he returned here in the spring, he told us: ‘Along the way, I heard that there is a law for the poor peasants of Southern Italy that also concerns us and that no one here has ever explained to us.’

“We wrote for information to a lawyer in Sulmona who confirmed the fact. The law wasn’t much, but still it was the law. A farmer who had only one donkey or only a couple of goats was not paying taxes.

“Antonio rounded up about ten friends and we showed up at the town hall. We apologized for the disturbance and explained the reason for the visit. The gentlemen at the town hall did not deny that the law existed; but, in order to benefit from it, they told us, an application from each person concerned was necessary. And since up to that day no one had made an application…

“So, we all made the application. For those who could not write, Antonio made the application for them and they signed it with a cross; and we were exempted from the tax. I won’t tell you the resentment of the two or three landowners of the village against Antonio, especially since he, at that time, didn’t even have a donkey or a goat.

“From that moment on, they targeted him; cowardly trying to starve him. In the enthusiasm for the result of the tax, a league of peasants was formed here. And in the headquarters of the league, they opened a small cooperative that resold, almost at the price of purchase, some consumer goods, such as oil, cod, sulfur for the vineyards. It was not, in itself, anything extraordinary. ‘What is extraordinary,’ said Antonio, ‘is that we are united and that we advise one another.’
“It was harvest time. For a month, as usual, there was a great lack of labor. One morning, we went to the piazza to wait for the call. The bosses arrived with their farmers, and quick as anything they grabbed up all the laborers. The piazza was empty. The only one who wasn’t called was your father, Antonio, even though there was not another reaper to be found like him here. It was punishment.

“Things only got worse. To work during harvest Antonio had to go to Celano, where he had some acquaintances. One evening, where Borgo Nuovo is now, someone burned a hundred sheaves belonging to one of our landowners. Even before establishing whether it was an accident or a crime, several of us were arrested as suspects. Among those arrested was Antonio, although he could prove that at the time of the fire he was at a great distance from the place.

“We were only released when the time of harvest work was over and the profit lost. Antonio was in the greatest distress. He had been engaged for three years to Assunta the dyer; he could not postpone the wedding for long. For love of that girl, he made a turnaround that surprised us all.

“One evening he came to the league and told us that he was resigning and not to count on him anymore, because he had to mind his own business. The next day he entered the service of one of the local landlords, as a guardian. ‘Guardian’ was a way of saying something like the manager’s henchman, but also his bailiff. When a dispute of the master became complicated, the manager said that it would be given to the guardian to deal with.

“The day we saw Antonio for the first time with his rifle on his shoulder, his leather leggings and his cap with a visor, we could not believe our eyes. To tell the truth, he too was ashamed. If he met us, he would slip away or look elsewhere, although no one dared reproach him—he had to lok after himself too. But you had to know Antonio to know if he would stay in that job for long. He could be violent, but not evil.

“One night a fire broke out in the league office. The few goods of the cooperative were destroyed. The next morning Antonio reappeared in the piazza without rifle, nor leggings, nor cap. He had resigned from his post. He had resigned from his job and the reason for his resignation soon became known. He had refused to take part in the fire at the cooperative’s headquarters. Did he know the arsonists and their instigator? ‘If the judge questions me,’ he said, ‘I will tell the truth.’

“He spent what was to be his last evening here, where we are sitting now, together with other friends. Although he certainly knew he was in danger. he made no mention of it. He was a man of who loved company and enjoyed being with friends again. Some of his words from that evening have never left my mind since. ‘Everyone has the right to look after himself,’ he said, ‘but not at the expense of others.’ Even selfishness has its limits.

“He wanted to go home fairly soon, because his wife, Assunta, was seven or eight months pregnant and he didn’t want to leave her alone. He left here at nine o’clock, but the sky was overcast and so the alleyway was in complete darkness. We followed the sound of his footsteps. Then a gunshot thundered.

“I grabbed a lantern and we ran. We found him lying on the ground in a pool of blood, dying.

“That murder made a huge impression on the whole neighborhood. In a way, it was from that night on that things changed here. I mean, not in appearance, but on the inside, in the way we look at ourselves. The landlord, who had Antonio’s life on his conscience, was not harassed by justice, but he left here anyway and never came back. The delinquent we suspected as the perpetrator of the murder was not harassed either, but he went away and never came back. There is only the agony of poor Assunta now to tell… “

“Continue, please,” said Marco to Biagio.

“The one who can tell you about your mother better than us,” said Biagio’s wife, “is Francesca the soap-maker. The two were always close and remained so until the end. Should I go get her?”

“I can go to her. Where does she live?” replied Marco.

“Up there behind the church.”

Marco found Francesca also sitting on the doorstep.

“What do you want? Who are you looking for?” the old woman asked him.

“Auntie, did you know a certain Assunta the dyer, the wife of Antonio Orecchione?” asked Marco.

“Leave the dead alone.”

“Do you remember that Assunta had a son?'”

“Yes, according to the will of her father, who was already dead when she gave birth, she named him after her grandfather, Marco. He was raised in the city, in an orphanage, and it seems that he became a bad boy.”

“Auntie, you mustn’t believe the gossip.”

“No, no, I’ve heard about it from people who know him. He stays in Avezzano, but he hangs out a lot in Borgo Nuovo. Apparently, he’s a real scoundrel. in short, the opposite of his father and mother.”

“Please stop, Auntie, because I am Marco.”

Francesca’s emotion and excuses had no end. Then the old woman started shouting for the neighbors to come running. “Do you know who this is? Don’t you recognize him? Look at his face, I recognized him right away.”

Many people surrounded and welcomed Marco. Then Francesca invited him into the house and offered him, according to ancient custom, a piece of bread, a glass of wine to drink, and an egg.

“Biagio the basket-maker told me that you knew my mother well,” said Marco.

“We shared sleep and tears,”‘ says Francesca. “If one went on a pilgrimage, the other could not stay at home. If one took communion, the other couldn’t abstain from it. If one received a letter, the other could not hide it from the other. Do you know why she liked Antonio and married him? He was gracious man. For friends he would pawn his own shirt.
“When Antonio, forced by need, had to wear the uniform of the bully, hardships for poor Assunta began. Her remorse was that Antonio had done it out of love for her. Then came that night of blood. We feared that the unhappy wife would go out of her mind. The birth that brought you into the world was very difficult. The doctor said right away, ‘She won’t live.’

“She still lived, a week, but with a totally clear mind. She knew she was dying; her anxiety was for the future of her son. She begged the priest to have him admitted to an institution. Before dying, she offered her life to God so that her son would grow up as honest as his father. ‘I don’t care if he’s rich or poor, but that he’s honest’ were her last words.”

Marco shuddered.

Francesca watched him in silence. “You don’t seem mean to me,” she told him. “Maybe the disease of easy money has gotten hold of you. I have a relative down in Borgo Nuovo, I know how people live down there. Much better than here. But are they happy? They do nothing but quarrel. And how long will the abundance last? The government has given you the flour, but everyone must put in the leaven himself.”

‘What do you mean by leaven?”

The old woman pointed in the direction of the heart. “Without a little heart nothing good is done. In what man does, the heart is like the leaven in bread. It makes it grow again….”

Marco’s truck quickly descended towards the plain. The countryside was dark and silent. All around Borgo Nuovo, only crickets and frogs were heard.

The truck stopped at a street corner. He tiptoed to a ground-floor window and knocked lightly on a shutter.

“Silvia,” he called under his breath.

The girl was watching, waiting, still dressed. She came over to the window and moved away the shutters, just a hand-breadth.

“What do you want, you shameless man?” she said to him.

“You must excuse me,” Marco replied.

“No,” she answered back. “I’ve had enough of you. You’re mean and selfish. You don’t have one true friend. I’m having tea. It’s over,” the girl said and shut the shutter in his face.

While this brief dialogue was taking place, in the next room Achille, Silvia’s brother, had woken up. He recognized the voices, and fearing that Silvia was going to bring Marco into her room, he took the revolver from the drawer of the bedside table and stood guard behind the shutters until he saw Marco walk away.

Marco returned to his truck and continued on his way. As he crossed the yard, he saw banners still wet with glue around the poles of the electric streetlamps. He got out of the truck to find out what they said. It was a summons for an extraordinary meeting of the cooperative, set for the evening of the next day. The topic was—”Proposal for Dissolution.”

The next day Silvia, on her bicycle, roamed the length and breadth of Borgo Nuovo, giving her acquaintances the most diverse excuses, in the hope of meeting Marco, not being very happy with the way she had treated him the night before. Passing through the square again, Silvia stopped for a while near a group of farmers and housewives discussing the latest news of the agrarian reform and the fate of the cooperative.

“We’ve overstepped our bounds,” said one. “The wagon is new, but the donkey is old. We’re not used to so much news at once. The cooperative spent everything it owned on the threshing machine; it did wrong. The government should take care of it.”

“God help you,” said another.

The school teacher intervened. “Do you know how much has been spent so far on roads? For canals? For farmhouses?” He quoted figures. Some contradicted him. Each one had something to say.

“After all the effort came fatigue. Were you waiting for gnocchi all cooked and ready to dig into?”

Silvia continued her search. She asked the young attendant at the gas station, “Have you seen Marco?” “I was waiting for him, but he didn’t show up,” she said.

Marco spent the whole day in his garage in Avezzano. He was in a foul mood, and didn’t respond to his mechanics’ jokes, and missed an opportunity for an adventure with a foreign lady who needed a small repair to her car and who invited him on a trip.

In the evening he returned to Borgo Nuovo. The square was unusually deserted. From the meeting room behind the farm machinery shed, he heard the echoes of the cooperative’s assembly. Everyone was there, even non-members.

Marco got closer, listening through the door. At the end of the room there is a small table. The president was seated. Next to him someone was reading the administrative report, trying to justify the expenses, wanting to show that everything had been done correctly.

Several voices interrupted him: “If that is so, why did things go wrong? Put it to the vote! A vote! Dissolution!”

The speaker himself admitted that this was not the way to go. “We do urgently need a truck, but we lack the money to buy or rent it. We have some receivables, but they are uncollectible. So, all right, dissolution! But mind you, it’s a loss. We will lose what little we had done.”

New shouts interrupted him: “To the vote! To the vote!”

Before the vote, the president asked if anyone wanted to speak against the dissolution. It was at this point that a violent scuffle broke out near the door, around Marco who was the cause of it. Some people interpreted his presence as mockery. Shouts of “Out! Out! Throw him out!” were heard.

Marco struck formidable blows left and right and managed to break through into the middle of the room. He asked the president to let him speak.

“About what?”

“Against the dissolution.”

“But you are not a member. In fact, you have been the cooperative’s most ardent opponent.”

“I’ve changed my mind. Right now, I’m all for it. What do you lack to keep going? A truck with a driver? I am at your disposal, with my truck.”

The surprise was general, and lets overlook the issue of formality that Marco did not have the right to speak.

“Come forward,” the president told him. “Say what you have to say, but start by swearing that you are not drunk and that this is not a joke.”

Marco stepped forward, frank and resolute.

“Speak,” the president told him.

“Since I’m not a lawyer, but a driver, I don’t know how to make speeches, so don’t interrupt me,” he said. “If you interrupt me, it’ll end in fist-fight, and you know I’m not afraid of that.”

“Talk,” the president told him.

“Do you know why things went wrong here?” says Marco. “The fault lies with two categories of men who, no offense intended, can be called by names of animals: the wolf-men and the sheep-men. The wolf-men, I too have been one of them so far, are the absolute selfish ones, without the slightest regard for their neighbors; the ones who are better off if they see that their neighbors are hurting. Then there are the sheep-men, the passive and indifferent ones. Those who have grown up with the aid to earthquake victims, who’ve settled for the subsidies for the various wars, who’ve survived with the UNRRA, the Pontifical Commission, the Quakers, and who consider land reform as manna falling from heaven and therefore are in the habit of sleeping on their backs with their mouths open. Is it possible for things to go well with the majority being wolf-men and sheep-men? Sure, we’ve received the land, the machines, the fertilizers, the houses. But it’s not enough.”

“What’s missing?” someone shouted at him.

“Don’t interrupt him,” the president pleaded. “Don’t get him swinging his fists!”

“What’s missing,” Marco continued, “an old peasant woman from Borgo Vecchio, who maybe some of you know, called Francesca the Soap-maker, explained it to me. The government has given you flour, Francesca told me, but it’s not enough to make bread, because you need leaven to make it grow again. The whole day long, I thought about the words of that old woman, and I think I now understand one thing. Wolf-men and sheep-men cannot do anything good, because they themselves are nothing good. Whatever men do, if they want it to ‘grow,’ they have to put their hearts into it. How do you want the business of a cooperative to grow, if it’s made up of wolf-men and sheep-men? The difference, however, is this—wolves die wolves and sheep die sheep. But men, we do not know how but it is certain, can change. “So, if you’re up for it, I’ll tell you frankly, I’m not backing down. Tomorrow morning, at five o’clock, I’ll be here, in front of the door with my truck and, if I find a team of you, we will go and load up.”

As Marco spoke, the assembly quickly went from surprise, to disbelief, to enthusiasm. At the end, a great ovation stifled his words.

Achille, Silvia’s brother, walked up to him and embraced him.

The next morning, Marco’s truck was in front of the cooperative’s door, when the men chosen as loaders arrived.

As the truck was about to leave, Silvia came on a bicycle.

“What do you want?” shouted Marco. “We’re in a hurry!”

“I can’t shout what I want,” Silvia replied.

The girl jumped on the step to talk to him without the others understanding.

“All right,” she told him, “that land reform takes heart, but a little bit you have to reserve for me.”

Featured image: The Fiat 615, from 1952.