As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say
The breath goes now, and some say, no;
The week had been hot, even for July, in New York. Each morning he had read the newspapers upon his breakfast tray with care, and each evening he had listened to the babbling of the radio commentators with attention. A week ago he had taken down the atlas and traced his finger across the map of southern France. A search had turned up a half-remembered volume on the shelves, Shorbel’s Excursions in Normandy. He had lingered, whistling without sound, over the disquisition on the thick, almost impenetrable, hedgerows that lined the sides of the rural roads.
Yesterday he had been sitting at his workbench in the plant rooms, pollinating stigmas of Dendrobium, when he had lifted his head like a wolf scenting the breeze. After pausing, he had finished his task and taken the elevator downstairs to his office. In the safe, he had found the papers that had been prepared months before, and the letter that he had hoped never to have to read. He had sat with the letter unopened on the desktop in front of him for most of the morning before he had reached for the opener and slit the envelope. It had surprised him to find that the envelope contained a single sheet of paper with a poem copied out upon it in the familiar handwriting. He remembered the lunch when he had recited the poem to Archie as an example of double-entendre. Archie had listened and laughed. The sheet of paper proved Archie had also remembered.
So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move,
‘Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.
He had understood that there would be difficulties even before the war began. Before the grim Sunday in December, Archie had been ready. After that, no amount of reasoning or remonstration could have kept Archie from the recruitment station in Times Square. There was only one appeal that might have turned the onrushing tide, and he had been afraid to make it. Later he had named himself fool and craven, but only away from the hearing of one who had other, more dangerous, preoccupations.
Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears,
Men reckon what it did and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.
His penultimate mistake had been to choose such a simple means of quashing Archie’s call-up. It had seemed sufficient to make the telephone calls to Washington D.C., rather than to weave some subtler web of influence. However, as first days and then months had passed, Archie had changed. His usual, impudent demeanor had cooled and he had grown distant. It had been arrogant to the point of ruin to underestimate Archie so thoroughly.
His ultimate mistake had been in withholding the truth during their confrontation. When Archie had accused him of valuing his own comfort over all other considerations, he had remained silent. The words had pierced deep, and he had refused to turn the blow. He could have recounted his true motivation, but he had feared that it would be scorned as another kind of selfishness. He had not allowed for the tenderness of Archie’s heart, the tenderness that would not reject any kind of affection as intrinsically worthless.
Dull sublunary lovers’ love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.
After Archie had confirmed his suspicions he had quit, as could have been predicted. What could not have been predicted was the disappearance and Saul’s refusal to intervene. He had been free, for the first time in years, from Archie’s gadfly presence and their perpetual wrangling. As he had surmised, the result was gray and idle days.
But we by’a love so much refined
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.
He had waited for a letter to inform him of what method Archie had used to overset his own interventions. When the envelope had come it had contained a photograph, a cheap product of an arcade booth, that portrayed Archie in a sergeant’s uniform with his tongue fully extended and his thumb to his nose with the fingers outstretched. He had kept it in a silver frame upon his desk.
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion
Like gold to airy thinness beat.
After that first letter more letters had come, with a frequency that had increased as the months advanced. He had traded letter for letter, although not page for page. It had been difficult to move beyond terseness until he had understood that terseness sufficed. All of the varied anecdotes and opinions that they had exchanged had encrypted a single message, again and again.
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do.
Since he himself could not purge the world of enough villainy to keep that which he loved safe from harm, he had turned his talents to supporting the efforts of others. It had been bitter to work with agencies that he neither trusted nor respected, but he had done so. It had been worse than bitter to see other, inferior individuals sitting in the chair that was, by right, Archie’s, but he had endured the sight. He had achieved his victories, although they had tasted of ashes.
And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
He had known by the white-knuckled grip of that dunce Johnny Keems upon the telephone that Archie was calling him. As he had held the receiver to his ear, he had heard the yells and catcalls of the other soldiers, telling Archie to hurry up and free the line. There had been no time for evasions. When Archie had shouted that he had two week’s leave before shipping overseas, he had told Archie to come home.
Fritz had prepared all of Archie’s favorite dishes; it was miraculous, given rationing. He himself had shown Archie the results of his latest endeavors in the rooftop greenhouses. Archie, as was to be expected, had gone out several evenings to return smelling of perfume. The last evening, though, had been set aside for the ongoing poker game that Archie shared with his closest circle of friends. It had been almost two o’clock in the morning before Archie had come into the office where he had been sitting, reading. Archie had smelled of corned beef, and, more strongly, of scotch. He had been pleased when Archie had pulled the red chair up close to his desk, and spoken with him about their years together. He had been even more pleased when he had gotten up to go to the elevator. Archie had also risen to his feet, and had approached him. He had held out his hand for the shake.
What had happened next had taken him by surprise, although it should not have. Even in the beginning, it had been Archie’s job to goad him into the actions that he would not have undertaken on his own. As was so often the case, what he had thought would be onerous had turned out to be fascinating. Archie’s lips had been gentle upon his own, and knowing.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run.
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
He had never been entirely alone after that night. The price had been high. He paid it now, as the slow pain crept through him, eroding him like sea-cliffs before the waves. Still, it was worth the pain to sense the presence just behind him, to know that, if he turned quickly enough, he would glimpse a familiar smirk beneath loving eyes. He felt the comfort of that presence even now, like warm and calming hands upon his shoulders, as the doorbell rang and Fritz went to receive the telegram from the Western Union boy.
-- John Donne: "Valediction Forbidding Mourning"
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