“A feeling of divine happiness possessed him; his heart seemed to expand as he breathed.” ~ Katherine Mansfield, from “Tales of a Courtyard”

 

“Hofgarten (courtyard) in Berlin,” by Albert Hertel (1897)
Wikimedia Commons

                   

Part III of Katherine Mansfield’s “Tales of a Courtyard”

III.—BY MOONLIGHT.

Feodor was passionately fond of poetry. He had written some pieces himself from time to time
and he was resolved to write a great many more. “Just wait a bit,” he would say, “Just wait
until I get enough money to go off into the country with nothing to do but lie in a field all day,
or sail in a little boat on a river and sleep in a haystack as snug as a bee in a hive. I’ll come
back with enough poems to last you a lifetime. Once I get the money.” . . . But it seemed quite
impossible that Feodor should ever have any money at all. Each day, from nine o’clock in the
morning until seven o’clock in the evening, he stood outside a large drapery establishment and
swung the door to the right for customers to enter and swung the door to the left for customers
to pass out. He was tall and dark. He wore a bright blue coat with red trimmings and a cap of
black patent leather. Sometimes the same ladies would go in and out of the shop several times
in the day. But they made no impression on Feodor. In the evenings he walked by the river or
strolled through the town until it was late. Then he went home to his tiny room at the top of
the house and lay down on his bed, staring at the ceiling until he fell asleep.

One summer night he came out of the street into the courtyard. The moon was shining and the
tops of the houses shone like silver. The houses themselves, half in light, half in shadow,
looked as though they were draped in velvet. White like marble shone the courtyard and the
chestnut tree stood like an immense bird with green wings in the pool of its own shadow.
Feodor breathed deeply with delight. He walked over to the chestnut tree and sat down on the
little stone bench, folding his arms. He was not alone there. An old man with white hair sat at
the other end of the bench, crouched forward, his hands held between his knees. Feodor
glanced at him once and then forgot about him. He began composing a poem. A feeling of
divine happiness possessed him; his heart seemed to expand as he breathed. Suddenly he saw
the old man fumble in a pocket. He brought out something wrapped in a linen handkerchief
and laid it on his knees. With infinite care he slowly parted the folds of the handkerchief and
Feodor saw a book bound in parchment and tied with purple silk ribbons. He moved a little
nearer the old man, who untied the ribbons and spread the book open. The pages were printed
with large, black letters. Each page had a blue letter at the top embroidered in gold and by the
bright moonlight it was quite easy to read what was written. Feodor moved nearer still. Then
he saw that each page was a poem. He leaned over the old man’s shoulder and read for himself
poems such as he had never dreamed of—poems that sounded in his ears like bells ringing in
some splendid tower—like waves beating on warm sands —like dark rivers falling down
forest-clad mountains. The old man suddenly put his hand over the page and turned to Feodor.
His lips and his eyes smiled but his face drenched in the white light of moon looked unreal,
like a face gleaming through water. “So you like poetry, young man,” he said, in a gentle, sad
voice. Feodor nodded twice without replying. Still smiling the old man looked him up and
down. “Strange,” he muttered, “Strange.” He took up his book and he began to read aloud.
Without moving, scarcely breathing, his eyes dark and shining, Feodor listened to the old man.
A long time passed until the last poem was read and the old man closed the book and tied
again the faded silk ribbons and laid it on the bench beside him. Silence fell between the two.
Feodor slowly came to consciousness of his surroundings, and with this consciousness to the
realization of his own poverty and helplessness and of his own longing for a different life—of
his craving to go away from the city—far away—into that country place with fields and rivers
and big yellow haystacks. “And soon it will all be too late,” he thought, “soon I shall be sitting
on this bench—an old man with white hair—but with no book of poems—with empty hands
I’ll be sitting here, and all will be over.” He began to breathe sharply and painfully as though
he had been running a very long way, and tears gushed into his eyes and flowed down his
trembling face. The old man paid no attention. He sat smoothing the book under his hand as
though it were a little animal, and talking to the book as though it were a little child. “My own,
my treasure, core of my heart, I will not part with thee. They think I am a fool because I am
old, but all my years I have longed for thee and thou art mine for ever. Sell us this, they say,
sell us this and you shall be a rich man for a year. Bah! I spit in their faces. No one shall buy
thee. Thou art my all in all until the end.” It was like a knife—the quick thought stabbing him.
The book is valuable. Now’s your chance. He recoiled in horror. No, there were things a fellow
did not do—steal from an old man was one. But what can the old man do with it. He must be
nearly a hundred years old. An old brain is too feeble to feel a loss. How can I get it? Ha! that’s
the question. One can’t fight an old man. . . . Perhaps if I told him—if I explained he might
give it to me—no, I’m mad to think that. Yet he must have taken a fancy to me. Why did he
start reading aloud? The memory of the poems and of the old man’s voice made it impossible
again for him to think of taking the book. Ask him for it—that’s what he’d do. He turned to the
old man. “You say your book is valuable,” he said politely. “That’s interesting.” The old man’s
head was sunk on his breast. He was asleep. Soft as a cat Feodor seized the book and crept
away from the chestnut tree—across the court—up to his tiny room.

“I have done the right thing—that’s certain. To-morrow I shall sell it, and to-morrow evening I
shall be gone from here forever.” He put the book under his pillow and went to bed.

Feodor could not sleep. Hours passed—slowly passed. His bed was hard as a dry field. And the
darkness moved as he moved, breathed to his breath, watched him with a swarm of narrow
eyes. Finally he got up, lit a candle and taking the book crept downstairs with it. “If the old
man is not there I shall keep the book—I shall have to keep the book— but if he is there I shall
put it back again or give it to him.” He was perfectly confident that the old man would not be
there. He’d have gone hours ago. But this was a good idea of his, otherwise he’d never have
rested in peace again. He slipped the bolt of the door and as the door opened he saw in the
deep shadow the old man still there—under the tree. Feodor went back to his room—threw the
book into a corner and fell fast asleep.

Maria Schulz ran down the passage. Her face was red, her hair tumbled. “What’s the matter,”
shouted Feodor. “There’s an old man,” said Maria. “The police are in the courtyard now. An
old man—found on the bench this morning, dead and cold as a stone.”