B. A. Ramsey
Where had I met such a poor noble woman before? Her hair was chestnut brown; her teeth straight and large; her forehead tall; and, her nose aquiline. But her eyes were the wine dark sea, which had seen drowned men and precious cargo sunk; for they had such a hue of darkness that, as she looked into my own eyes as mine met hers, I felt there must be a more important stake in the till for us both.
Her eyes were great sails, ample and full; but, ample and full in the shape of two pigskin balls. I don’t usually notice people’s eyes, for I don’t usually seek out others. But she did – and, she still does. It was plain to see, even the first time I noticed her, for she offered every patron in line before me the same full blown expression.
‘Tall Bold, please,’ I ordered.
She rang in my order, and the total was displayed by the register.
She must have fallen off several generations ago. Fallen fathoms deep, undulating with the swelling of the dark drink. Her eyes may once have been her forbearers own sky blue, until they fell off and drowned, depths into depths, deep and dark as the sea, the wine dark sea.
‘My eyes are navy blue, hers the wine dark sea.’ I thought.
She turned her back on me to fill my order – dark roasted coffee in a paper cup – and, as she came about from a yard’s distance, she asked without common respect, ‘Do you want anything else?’
She asked this as she poured coffee from a faucet, which she did not bother to look at. Nor did she look at my cup. But she was looking into my eyes, as her right hip relaxed against the cupboard and her left leg bent slightly at the knee.
I perished at that very moment, because she did not say, would you like? But only, do you want!
Her expression was vulgar, and taking from her that expression made me vulgar. Yet it was how she did express herself to me in front of a long lineup of customers.
I felt almost sorry.
In that transaction I too lost my civility, and dropped the normal expression of gratitude. I feared the force of what a one word answer would make, so I only shook my head.
She returned to the register and announced the total. I forget her exact phrasing. But the total was one-dollar-and-eighty-nine-cents.
I handed her a twenty dollar bill, and I felt very lucky to have one of those on me. She counted back the change.
‘That’s eighteen-dollars-and-eleven-cents.’ She said.
The four different sized coins balanced on the two bills she handed back to me.
Of course one coin dropped but she didn’t notice it fall. The dime dropped, but the rest we secured. I tossed the dime in the very full tip jar, and it made the sound of an important coin being placed in a piggy bank. She darted around to see what I had left, and her eyes fell upon the top layer of the jar. But there was only silver in that deposit, and no gold. The rest of the coins were for my front pocket; and, the two bills, my pocket-wallet.
I walked to the concession stand at the rear of the store. I whitened my coffee, placed a lid on my cup; then, walked gingerly, eyes straight ahead, and passed a group of well-dressed women coming in as I made my way out.
I was outside and anonymous once more, as I fled the street for a sit down in the park across the intersection.
This was my place after all, and I knew it. Alone, a little cold; sitting down, smoking, and drinking my coffee. Not doing anything wrong or illegal, but feeling uncomfortable. For it is unsavory for an esquire who makes his living in letters to be seated in such a place on such a day, but even more so for a common man worth any respect that ill health due to a bad habit had tarnished.
And I thought of her lady serving coffee; or so, it was how I must remember her. Not worth polite English, or common gratitude, but only the jingle-jangle of what each day must wrangle, lowering herself to serve the likes of me.
Where had I met her before? In which century, in recent memory, had our paths crossed? Certainly, not in the wars of the last century, because we were not allies; and, being of the opposite sex our paths would not have crossed. Nor would we have met in the Old Curiosity Shop where I had been brought up. Perhaps I had fallen for none other than some eighteenth century remnant of the noble family of Mazzini.
On the northern side of Queen Street, are still to be seen the magnificent remains of a work of literary merit, which formerly described the noble name, Mazzini. It stands in the centre of a book shop, and upon a bookshelf’s highest eminence, and on one side slopes from the side of the case, and on the other rises to a gentle acclivity stopped by a book end. The situation is admirably beautiful and picturesque, the books have an air of ancient grandeur, which contrasted with the present state of published materials, impress the sojourner with awe and curiosity. During my browsing in this book I visited a verse or two. As I turned over the loose fragments of pages, which lay scattered through the immense area of the fabric of the work, and surveyed the sublimity and subtlety of the words, I recurred by a natural association of ideas, to the times when this book stood proudly in its original splendor, wherein volumes were the scenes of awe and terror, and when they resounded with the advertisements of those whom death had long swept from the earth. ‘Thus’ said I, ‘shall the present generation – he who now sinks in misery – and he who now swims in pleasure – alike decay and be forgotten.’ My heart swelled with the reflection, and as I turned from the case with a sigh, I fixed my eyes upon the same noblewoman, gently bending toward the opposite shelf, who formed no uninteresting object in the picture. She observed my emotion; and as my eye met hers, shook her head and pointed to the volume. ‘These books,’ said she, ‘were once the seat of luxury and virtue. They exhibited a singular instance of the requital of the sublime, and were from that period forsaken, and abandoned to ruin.’ Her words excited my curiosity, and I enquired further concerning their meaning. ‘Solemn verses belong to this book, which is too long and intricate for me to relate. It is, however, contained in a manuscript in our library, of which I could perhaps, procure you a sight. An editor more recent, a descendant of the noble house of Mazzini, collected and recorded the most striking incidents relating to our family, and the history thus formed, he left as legacy to our collection. If you please, we will walk thither.
I accompanied her to the library, and her lady introduced me to the librarian, a woman of intelligent mind and benevolent heart, with whom I passed some hours in interesting conversation. I believe my sentiments pleased her, for by her indulgence, I was permitted to trace over two verses of the reference volume before me, which I have arraigned in the following page.
In Northern Sicily on a small bay,
The ruins of Mazzini slope away;
And awfully picturesque and grand
Is fabrick for the sentimental hand –
The sea aloft it faces on one side,
Beyond dark forests where Banditti hide;
The traveler who fell upon this spot,
And walked upon loose fragments in sad thought,
Cried, ‘both happy and sad who live today,
‘Alike into oblivion may pass away,
‘As noble halls which brought festivity
‘Have fallen to complete obscurity –
‘Mazzini’s have sunk into their death,
‘Repose inert; retired; without breath.’
A friar also walked upon this rock,
Saw this lone traveler, and stopped to talk:
‘Happy and sad ‘tis true must pass away,
‘But God forbids the just prolonged decay;
‘Ruins which are the moral of our lore
‘That impugns ignominy by its own gore,
‘Have been the burden of this noble name
‘That lives as some forsaken for their shame;
‘While none perish, nor shall a turret fall
‘That buries good and evil, one and all,
‘You must yet tarry for a tale to tell,
‘And trust the contemplation of the cell –
‘A manuscript left in our friary,
‘Would more acquaint you of the heraldry.
I returned to the coffee shop the following day with the verses I had traced from the reference volume. Her lady was there with a long line-up of customers. When it was my turn at the front of the line, instead of ordering, I just stared into her eyes and remained silent. Again I saw in them the wine dark sea and dreamed my eyes were as dark and deep as hers. After looking at each other for some few moments without saying anything, her lady asked, ‘Do you want anything?’ I said nothing but flashed back eyes as swollen and dark as I imagined I could cause them to become. Then I placed the verses in front of her and left.
Immediately afterwards I visited the bookshop, and walked to the case where the decayed book was displayed. I removed the volume which contained the verses I had traced in the library, and turned over the cover to see how much the shop was asking for the work. I had just enough money from the twenty dollars I had started out with the day before for the purchase. So, I bought the book.
I soon walked directly to the park, as I did not need to visit the library that day, and I read each page in that volume, feeling more comfortable among the ruins of Mazzini.
Some weeks later I returned to the coffee shop with a full ream of covered tracing paper to leave for her lady. She looked straight into my eyes, even before I was at the front of the line. She walked right up, stuck out her hand to greet me, and informed me I was hired for a job serving coffee if I could only stand it.
Much her lady and I have found among ruins since then, and one day I think I shall kneel.
The brunt of two hours that took to read,
Howsoever much detail I copied.
The words of that verse I have embellish’d,
To make loss taste sweet, e’en falling relish’d;
I leave it for the reader to discern,
Or cast it in the fire; so, let it burn;