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KATYA KONTOROMPA
 To
Jack Kahane
{21}
MRS. Kontorompa waddled into her large drawing-room at Hortiach one May morning calling “Katya! Katya!” in a voice more shrill than a parrot’s. She progressed rather magnificently in spite of her waddle, for she had both weight and solidity, and it was not without dignity that, having reached the window, she leaned out and surveyed her hot garden blazing with colour. “Katya! Katya!” she shrilled.
“What is it, mamma?” asked a languid voice from the depths of a luxurious chair near the piano a yard or two away.
Mrs. Kontorompa’s irritation vanished instantly.
“Oh, Katya, dear, I have just been speaking to your father on the telephone. He said....”
“I know what he said,” interrupted her daughter. “He said no. He always does say no. But I warn you, mamma, I’m just about at the end of my patience, and either to-day or to-morrow I shall ... well, I shall do something desperate.”
Mrs. Kontorompa’s most benevolent face assumed a look of anxiety.
“But what can I do?” she asked, despairingly.
“Nothing, dear mamma. We have always known—you and I—that you could do nothing. It’s not your fault. But papa is so stupid, is it not so? Why, in the name of God, he sent me....”
“Katya, you must not swear. Beside{22}s, you have promised me not to.”
“Very well, mamma, I won’t. Why, in the name of respectability then, he sent me to Brussels—Brussels, of all places—I can’t understand.”
Her luminous blue eyes, deep and tender, formed large patches of colour above her very pale cheeks, and her pouting red lips, half smiling, concealed her regularly irregular white teeth.
“Your father, Katya, dear—well, you know what your father is. He blunders, but he means well. He thought Brussels would be good for you.”
“Oh, it was, it was: most awfully good. The Avenue Louise, mamma, on a May morning with Captain Pierre Lacroix by my side—oh, that was heaven! Yes, Brussels was heaven, and I lived there among the male angels—I mean the deliciously wicked men—for one very short year. But if Brussels was heaven, Hortiach is hell, and I really do believe father is the devil himself.”
Her mother smiled reluctantly.
“Katya, dear, you musn’t talk like that. At all events, only when we’re alone.”
It was Katya’s turn to smile, and in the middle of her sweet smile she broke out, impulsively:
“Father is a dear, really, you know; but he is so awfully blind and dull and stupid. Fancy thinking Salonika is too wicked for me to live in! Why, if he only knew the things I did....”
She paused and her eyes grew naughty with{23} reminiscences.
“Yes, Katya?” her mother whispered, invitingly.
“Oh nothing. I say ‘nothing,’ but I mean everything.”
“Everything?”
“Well, not quite everything. Yet I sometimes wish I had gone what my English friends used to call 'the whole hog.’ All the way, you know.”
“Oh, do, do be careful, Katya. You will be married some day, you know.”
“That’s just the point—shall I? Whom can I marry in Hortiach? Is there a single soul good enough? You know there isn’t. Yet in Salonika, only fifteen miles away, there must be scores of the most delightful creatures. Oh, mamma, I do love men, don’t you?”
“I used to, dear. But now I love only your father.”
“Poor mamma! But how awfully sweet for father!”
They sat in silence for a few minutes whilst the still garden hummed with insects; the sun smote the flowers, and a trickle of water made a tepid sound in the well close by.
Then, suddenly, Mrs. Kontorompa, having brushed away a fly that had settled on her nose, turned to her daughter.
“I will persuade your father to let us join him in Salonika for a fortnight. I will really, Katya. I know how to do it. We will go next month.”
“Oh, y{24}ou are sweet, mamma dear, aren’t you? I do think you’re sweet.”
And Katya, rising from her deep chair and gliding to the pianoforte, began to play Chopin’s Polonaise in C-sharp minor, crashing out the fat discords with all the exuberance of youth. With her hands folded on that part of her body lying below her waist, Mrs. Kontorompa sat admiring her daughter: admiring this daring and bewildering creature who, only a month ago, had come from a Belgian school whither she had gone to add smartness to her education: admiring and loving her, and feeling that she would sell her soul to be like Katya—eighteen, beautiful, devil-may-care, clever, wilful, and so terribly worshipful. Then, Katya having begun the great Nocturne in C minor, with its quivering and mounting octaves, Mrs. Kontorompa rose and left the room to supervise the mysterious workings of her Grecian household.
It was quite early the same morning that Katya, white and wonderful, left her father’s house and walked higher up the mountain to the side of which Hortiach clings. She was in a mood of half-angry revolt, and as she walked along a sheep-track winding among the rocks, she told herself that if only Elise Deschamps were with her, they would surely find something amusing to do. Elise respected the opinions of no one. And as Katya Kontorompa’s mind was busy thinking of her friend, suddenly, from behind a rock stepped a tall, slim youth, hatless, bare-chested, carrying a flute in his hand, his black curly hair surmounting a face{25} that was at once grave and beseeching.
“Oh!” said Katya, half-aloud, as she caught her breath and passed him.
He, giving her a rapid, shy glance, walked across her path and made his way to a shaded pool that even at midday is always cool and fresh.
She watched him as he, far off, sat down in the sunlight that, dripping from the fig-tree above him, flecked him with patches of green and white. She could just hear the low, watery tones of his flute as he improvised with the careless ease of an artist. She had seen him thus on several occasions, and, seeing him, had always felt a little thrill of desire. She wished to love him just for an hour, to have those slender arms about her body, to feel his curved, inexperienced lips against her own. But he was shy and a little afraid. Yes, she was sure he was afraid, for every time she had crossed his path he had hastened his pace to almost a run, and had never once looked back to meet her inquiring and inviting gaze. His fear of her spurred her on to an adventure with him, for she could not understand his sexless eyes, and to her it was ridiculous that a handsome youth should run away from a beautiful and willing girl.
Sitting down in the shade of a rock, she half closed her eyes and looked lazily at him as he sat by his deep pool of coolest water. His flute still gave its music, music that was as free from care and all self-consciousness as the song of a bird. What a dear, foolish and{26} charming boy he was! He could be no more than a year younger than herself, and yet she could swear he had never loved a woman. Loved?—why, not even kissed.
Though she felt angry with him because of his passionless eyes, she could not help experiencing a certain yearning for him, a tenderness that was half laughter, half tears. When, at length, he wandered away, she sighed.
“Oh, damn!” she whispered. “The little fool is an abject idiot! Do I really love him? I wonder.... In any case, I will have some fun with him. If he will not love me, he shall at least hate me.”
Happy with her new interest in life, she planned her mischievous and immodest scheme. Like all Greek women, she was discretion itself, and the first question she put to herself was: “If I do it, will he tell?” But this so necessary question required only a moment’s consideration. Of course he wouldn’t tell, for, in any event, whatever the outcome of her escapade might be, the story of it would be against himself. Moreover, she would so cleverly contrive matters that it would appear that the entire occurrence was one of the many affairs of chance.
And, musing over her plan, she walked rather rapidly down to her garden-home.
Mrs.{27} Kontorompa never dressed for breakfast. In the warm days she always breakfasted in a flimsy dressing-gown on the little veranda outside her bedroom, and it was here early one morning that Katya, looking very demure, joined her. She carried a French translation of one of Joseph Conrad’s books.
“Good morning, mamma,” she said, “how perfectly sweet you look in that pink thing!”
Mrs. Kontorompa, who knew very well that she did not look sweet in anything in the world, smiled.
“You do say such nice things, Katya dear.”
“Oh, the coffee’s here already. Do pour me out a glass, mamma. I’m terribly thirsty—and hungry, too.”
She ate bread, butter and honey, and smiled at two kissing butterflies.
“How nice to be a butterfly!” she said, munching.
“Yes, but why?”
“Well, a butterfly does just what it wants. It does not wait to be introduced. It is so wonderfully unmoral.”
Her mother surveyed her for a moment.
“Do you know, Katya, you sometimes talk just like some of the women in those French novels you brought home with you from Brussels.”
“Do I? Well, I feel like them. I’m going for a bathe this morning, mamma.”
“A bathe! Where? Why?”
“In the little pool b{28}y the fig-tree. Because I want to.”
“Very well, I’ll come with you.”
“That would be lovely,” said Katya, “if I were selfish enough to allow you. But you’d make yourself ill, climbing up there in the sun.”
“But, Katya....”
“You know you would, mamma. No, I’m going alone. No one ever goes near the place: I shall be quite all right.”
And when she had finished her breakfast, she went to her room, put on a big sun-hat, took a towel from her bedroom cupboard, and stepped very silently downstairs. But her mother issued from the drawing-room just as her daughter reached the bottom of the stairs.
“But you have nothing to cover yourself with—no bathing costume!” Mrs. Kontorompa objected.
“Ah, that’s just it!” said Katya mischievously.
“What is?”
“Oh, nothing, mamma, my precious. Good-bye.”
And she ran into the garden, swinging the towel over her head.
There was still a little coolness of dawn in the air, especially under the trees, and the freshness of the air and the hard exercise of climbing up the mountain-side brought an unaccustomed tinge of rose to Katya’s cheeks. The clear pool was waiting for her, and, stepping to its rocky edge, she bent over a little and gazed at her reflection in the cool water.{29}
“Really, I grow more beautiful every day,” she murmured, pleased and excited.
She knelt down behind a rock and began to undress, now and again turning her eyes in the direction from which she expected her flute-player to come. But when her garments were ready for taking off, she did not remove them; instead, she sat down and surveyed the romantic and picturesque village below.
Yes, it was romantic enough, she thought, but it was so stupidly familiar. She knew every house, every tree, every rock, and if she did not know every man, woman, and child, it was because she did not care to. Yet, after all, people mattered enormously. The most seductive scenery in the world was not romantic except in its relationship to human beings. And even this boy, this flute-player, had a certain air, an atmosphere, something of distinction and attraction.
With sudden impatience and self-disgust, she shook herself, and then leaned over the edge of the water.
“Fool!” she ejaculated to her reflection; “sentimentalist! He is a little nincompoop and you know it. You are going to teach him a lesson: you are going to terrify him out of his wits.”
Raising her head, she saw the object of her thoughts issuing from the outskirts of the village and making his way up the mountain to the pool. He walked with an easy stride.{30}
Hastily she took off her clothes, hid them in a cleft of the rocks, and stepped into the water which took her beautiful body with a laugh and a sigh. She swam about for a minute or two and then, calculating that by now he would be near at hand—the intervening rocks hid him from sight—she swam to a little narrow bay where the water was deep, and where she was hidden from view, and clung with her finger-tips to a ledge in the rocks.
The wrinkled surface of the pool had only just had time to become smooth again, when the flute-player, very silently, walked to the fig-tree and sat down in its shade. Almost immediately he began to play, and the melodies he invented were very melancholy. Katya smiled with malice, though she approved of and liked his skill.
“What a clever little fool it is!” she said to herself, as, giving herself to the water and pressing her feet against the side of the rock, she pushed herself out toward the middle of the pool and began slowly to swim in the flute-player’s direction. So quickly did she go, and so absorbed was he in his music, that he did not see her even when she was within a dozen yards of him and was standing, the water reaching to her waist, regarding him with wide, malicious eyes. She raised her hands and brought them down on the water with a heavy splash.
A run he was playing broke in the middle like a thread that is snapped, and, startled, he let his instrument fall to the ground. His eyes had the look of one whose dreams have come true; {31}it was as though he had been evoking a nymph and she had at last arrived. Motionless and absorbed, he stared at her, his eyes very round, his lips parted; but he spoke no word, and something in the earnestness of his gaze—a look a little unearthly, indeed, holy—made her, who had wished to frighten him, herself afraid. There was no abashed look in his eyes, as she had expected, no look of dismay, no hint of fear: merely an expression of incredulity—the look of a boy to whom a long-awaited miracle has at last happened.
Their long gaze into each others’ eyes lasted many moments, and as his eyes did not droop under hers, but indeed, stared and stared unflinchingly, Katya began to experience the shame of a child who has been discovered in some wickedness. She had expected him, on her appearing, to run away in terror and shocked modesty. If he had blushed even, or had looked confused, or had turned his back upon her, or exhibited any of the signs of awkwardness and shame, she would have known how to continue the comedy. But he accepted her. Moreover, she knew that some wonder had been expected from that water. To him she was not human, but the spirit of the pool come at the bidding of his music.
Her courage and her impertinence deserted her, and, with a sudden movement, she disappeared under the water, and swam back to the deep bay where she had left her clothing. She heard him cry out excitedly, and, with equal e{32}xcitement, she swam towards the edge of the water, touched the ground with her feet and began to walk to the shore. He was there waiting for her, for he had run rapidly round the pool, and now stood with his flute in his hand, his face full of ecstasy, with white teeth shining in the sun.
For a few moments he stood thus on a high rock looking down upon her. But when she had reached the cleft where her clothes were hidden, and when he saw her take them in her hands, his face instantly changed from ecstasy to bewilderment, and then from bewilderment to loathing.
“It’s you—you—you! You dreadful black woman!” he called out.
She raised her head to look at him, and saw that he was trembling with anger. His brown face was yellow and distorted. He tried to speak some more words, but his throat choked him, and his inability to speak increased his anger so greatly that all his body shook like one convulsed.
Raising his flute on high, he threw it into the water with terrific force, and, turning, ran up the mountain side with a frantic speed that had not decreased when she could no longer see him....
Pressing her white dress to her face, Katya wept and wept. She wept with shame, with mortification.... She wept with love.


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