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THE BATHS MURDER
 To
Edwin Morrow
{35}
BEFORE you had crossed the threshold you felt the humid air as it stealthily assaulted your flesh, and the dank stone couches, some bare and perspiring, others half covered with painted rags, gave the impression of tawdry self-indulgence.
I have tried many times to determine precisely what it was about those cavernous baths that gave me the impression of wickedness, and because my attempts have always been unsuccessful I have been driven to entertain the possibility that the wickedness lay in myself, and was evoked by the semi-darkness, the drip of water, the lamps that flickered but did not die, the humid air, the long treacherous corridors, the dirty domes, and the soft secrecy of scandals stealing up the stair. But why should these things, either separately or collectively, suggest evil? I do not know. But they did. They do. And the little poisoned glasses of cognac which, one by one, used to be placed at one’s side so that one might sip before and after sleep, seemed to me lewd and violently unnecessary....
In that place worked Aristides Kronothos, lean Kronothos, who, with his lack-lustre eyes, his long, dangling arms, and air of patient resignation hid, and hid well, the venom in his breast. A year ago he lived in Soho with his wife and worshipped child. To their little restaurant came a man of mixed blood—some Armenian, some Montenegrin—who, with money and promises, stole Aristides’ wife and left England for Greece. Kronothos, having knowledge of his lair in Salonika, sold his business and followed. He loved desperately and hated desperately. But the man of mixed blood was well protected,{36} and seemed out of reach of all revenge, for though it is true that Kronothos, almost any day, might have slit his throat in full view of the street and its people, he had no desire to be caught and punished. He felt greatly, profoundly; but he did not feel tragically. His skin was of immeasurable value to himself.
So he used to go about his work in those cave-like baths feeling thwarted, and I am told that, on slack days, he would sit, chin in hand, brooding, his unfocused eyes looking into spaceless space, his long, lean neck jutting ostrich-like from his towel-robe, his nervy fingers twitching.
He was a good worker. Rompapas told me that. Rompapas always insisted to me that Aristides Kronothos had an almost extravagant sense of duty. For example, he would stay after hours hosing and even scrubbing the filthy corridors, trying to vanquish their musty smell; and so constant and devoted was he that in time he was entrusted with the keys of the great watery and wandering place, and would lock up two or three hours before midnight, and dismally seek his dismal room.
Half drunk and full of vanity, the man of mixed blood—George Georges was his fantastic name—plunged out of the Olympos Hotel and bawled for a gharry. At his command three came. His great, hulking body sank into the first and bent its crazy framework into a capital U.{37}
The city had just lit its myriad lights, and the sky was like purple velvet. Georges gave it a contemptuous glance, and as the driver turned round for orders, his temporary master waved a fat hand in the air and grunted:
“Anywhere! Take me out of this damned hole!”
But which damned hole he meant the driver did not know, for Georges’ gesture embraced the universe. The gharry jolted and swayed along the quay and, turning to the left, entered a semi-suburban region of large houses, evil smells, and gutter children. It was dark here, and Georges hated darkness.
“Take me out of this damned hole as well,” he shouted.
And in a minute they emerged into Rue Egnatia and passed the Baths. Georges had a thought.
“I’ll get washed,” said he. “And after that,” he added, for he was a man of some education and humour, “I will stay me with flagons and comfort myself with apples.”
So he stopped the gharry, alighted, and, paying his driver rather regally, turned to the Baths.
He arrived at the precise moment when Aristides Kronothos, having decided that further custom that night was most improbable, was about to discard his towel-robe and don his ordinary garments. In those dim Baths he saw his enemy and recognized him, and, shrinking behin{38}d a pillar, said in a high-pitched assumed voice:
“Perhaps His Highness will take a room on the right.”
Georges rolled up the half-dozen steps and entered the room.
Aristides was a man of great resource and some courage, and when his mind, trumpet-like, had shouted to him: “My moment has arrived!” he ran quickly to the outer door, bolting and locking it. Then he sped to a little chamber, turned on a light and seized a razor....
There is no disguise like disfigurement, and within two minutes Aristides had shaved off his eyebrows, taken out his prominent false teeth, and cut a deep gash in his right cheek. The sight of his own blood, as it fell into the bowl of water he had prepared, excited him excessively, and as he swathed the lower part of his face in bandages he breathed stertorously, and his eyes began to glitter with internal light. But he worked quickly and without clumsiness, and he smiled with satisfaction as he saw his thin blood creeping and spreading on the bandage like red ink on blotting-paper.
“It must just show,” he said to himself, “not enough to alarm or sicken him, but sufficient to assure him that my bandage is necessary.”
By now Georges was clapping his hands and calling for cognac, a{39}nd it was a very large glassful that Aristides, obsequiously bowing, handed to him a moment later.
“God!” exclaimed Georges, “you are bleeding.”
“Yes,” said Aristides, “but it is nothing.”
“But I wanted a massage, and you look ill.”
“I assure you, it is nothing. It does not even hurt.”
Georges drank the cognac with a gulp, and sighed with vexation.
“I hate to see wounds,” he said, “are you sure your bandage is securely fixed?”
“Your Highness need not be afraid. I shall not take off my bandage while Your Highness is here. And it will not slip,” he added with a humour that he felt to be daring.
“Very well, then: I’m ready. Sandals—a small pair.”
His wooden sandals clicked down the steps as he followed Aristides. In single file they crossed the large court-like entrance hall, entered a passage that twisted and turned inconsequently, passed through a room whose ceiling dripped incessantly, found another passage, and, turning suddenly to the right, entered a circular room whose ceiling was a blind dome. Here also the water dripped.
“Like a cave,” observed Georges, with an utter lack of originality. “One can imagine stalactites and stalagmites forming here and, in the course of time, meeting and crusting together.”{40}
Aristides stood listening deferentially. He knew his man. He knew that Georges, with his insatiable vanity, was seeking to impress him.
Georges slipped off his towels, sat down on the raised marble slab and submitted himself to his massage.
Nothing, of course, can reach the mind except through the channel of the senses. Yet something reached Georges’ mind that his eyes did not see, nor his ears hear, nor his flesh feel. Fear began to bud and blossom in his mind like a monstrous fungus. Yet, curiously, he did not fear Aristides: he feared himself.
“You are a clever masseur,” he observed, thinking banal conversation might rid him of his terror.
“I am glad Your Highness thinks so.”
Aristides stopped in his work. He was kneeling by the side of his enemy, and he fixed his glittering eyes on him with hate-hunger.
“I think I’ve been massaged enough,” said Georges, feeling suddenly sick. “I am not very well. Perhaps it was the cognac.... How silent this place is! No sound but water dripping.”
“We are here alone,” said Aristides. Though he spoke with no meaning in his tone, Georges started violently and looked at the closed door.
“Yes, it is locked,” said Aristides.
And, without a word, the masseur rose languidly to his feet, crossed the little chamber, and sat on the only chair it contained. Georges raised himself to a sitting posture. His flabby face was pale, and involuntarily he lo{41}oked up at the windowless domes.
“There is no way out here,” said Aristides, smiling grimly.
“No. Why should there be? Will you fetch me some water? I feel faint and damnably sick.”
“Certainly.”
Aristides brought a glass from a cupboard, filled it with water, and handed it to his enemy.
Georges, having drained its last drop, rose, swayed for a moment, and sat down, wiping his perspiring forehead with the back of his hand.
“You look ill,” said Aristides.
“I have drunk too much, I think. I drank on an empty stomach. Help me out into the cooler air. All the air here has been used up: it has been through a hundred lungs.”
But Aristides did not move to help him. For a full minute there was silence: a great silence emphasized by the drip-drip-drip of water within the circular room. Georges was dimly aware of the water vapour rising from the wet marble floor, and some strange inquiring part of his brain wondered why the vapour made no noise as it floated upwards through the dome. At length his wandering eyes were caught and held by the eyes of Aristides, whose glance was sharp and poisoned. Georges recoiled a little.
“Surely I have seen you before?” he asked.
“It is possible. It is likely. But I do no{42}t remember our meeting.... Does Your Highness feel better now?”
“A little. But I want air.”
And then Georges suddenly began to tremble, for as he stopped speaking he became blindingly aware of the identity of his masseur. His physical cowardice was astonishing, but he had a bold, sinewy mind, and he summoned all its subtlety to his aid.
“Good God!” he exclaimed, with a welcoming smile, “you’re Kronothos! How extraordinary! But I thought all along, somehow, that I knew you.”
He held out his hand with a great gesture of pleasure. Aristides took it, and with his own communicated to Georges an indefinable feeling of impending woe. He did not speak.
“But you must have recognized me!” urged Georges. “Why did you not say so? We were friends once, you know.”
Aristides saw his fear and loved it.
“Once it did certainly seem as though we were friends,” he admitted, “but now, you see, I am the husband of the woman you live with.”
Terror shook Georges in his very vitals, and he leaned over as though to vomit.
“Ah! Yes, yes!” he muttered. And his consciousness seemed to dart about in his brain like a ferret in its cage.
Aristides stood savouring the quaking fear of his victim, but it was with difficulty he prevented himself from rushing upon his enemy and crushing out his life.{43}
“Your Highness will wait here a little time whilst I tidy up,” he said.
And he began folding the towels and swabbing the floor. Georges, sitting with his elbow on his knee and his chin in his hand, watched him with apprehensive eyes. Finding this period of waiting no longer bearable, he said, humbly:
“Will you let me go? I am too ill to.... You know, I am not entirely to blame. She was tired of you.... Living with you made her....”
He stopped, fearing to speak more. Then:
“Please let me go,” he added.
With a bound Aristides was upon him, his wiry hands about Georges’ fat throat, his finger-tips disappearing as far as the first joint into the flesh of his wife’s seducer. He held on viciously, his fingers as firm and frenzied as a bulldog’s teeth. Georges rolled over on his back, his muscleless arms waving in the air like branches swayed by a breeze, and a sound, half groan, half hiss, came from him as Aristides pressed his right knee on his enemy’s chest. It lasted little more than a minute, and at length the fat man of mixed blood lay soft and limp upon the couch of marble whilst Aristides, exhausted, sat examining him eagerly....
If you wish, you can be with him for a moment. In those spacious, thick-walled Baths there is always deep silence save when customers and workers are there; but the silence is constantly broken by big drops of water that fall from roof and walls to the paved floor. As you listen, there appears to be some purpose in this sound: {44}some elaborate scheming, maybe: some nefarious business afoot. It is the persistence of it that counts, and it is the deliberateness of it that makes you suspect conspiracies.
After violence there is always reaction, and a reaction came to Aristides very quickly as he sat dumbly looking on the dead body of his victim. He had a feeling of approaching catastrophe—a feeling that implied that what had happened was as nothing compared with what was about to happen. Disaster had been released, like a lion, from its den, and ravage must necessarily follow. He, so careful of his own life, felt himself drawn, dragged, into disaster. And the agent of disaster was himself.
He rose, gave a final frightened glance at the body, unlocked the door, and stumbled his way to the entrance of the building. He wanted to run quickly and unthwarted to his doom. So he cast off his towel-robe and began to don his outdoor clothing. And as he dressed he kept repeating to himself:
“Kalamaria! Kalamaria! I will go to Kalamaria to die.”
For beyond Kalamaria, where the little cliffs are, the sea is deep, and the water would take his body and smother it. He did not want to die, and a deep fear shook his heart as he thought of death. But he could not help himself. Something within him—the lion he had let loose—was driving and goading him on towards death: his terror of death was as nothing compared with his terror of discovery, for discovery wo{45}uld mean prolonged torture as well as death, and he had already been tortured to his soul’s full capacity.
What could bring him solace? Drink. Of course. The very word already soothed him, as the promise to lend money immediately soothes the eager borrower. He took a bottle of cognac from the shelf and drank deeply and agitatedly. The liquid burnt his throat and stoutened his heart. He stopped and gasped for breath, and then drank again, and again gasped. Yes: yes: the stuff was already averting disaster: the lion would, in the latter end, pass him by. For, after all, what had he done? Simply an act of justice. Nothing more. An act of bare justice, for was it not right that a seducer of women should die? He had, it is true, taken the law into his own hands. But what man wouldn’t? What man doesn’t?...
Oh, yes: he felt much happier, much stronger, now. Nearly, very nearly, he was content. The cognac fumes dizzied his brain, and as he rose to leave the Baths, he lurched and laughed insanely at himself for doing so. Turning out the lights, he opened the door and looked into Rue Egnatia twenty yards or so away. The shops were lit: there was plenty of traffic: an electric tram clattered by. The entire city, except these loathsome Baths, seemed very friendly. And he was about to issue forth into the night when the thought of the unconsumed cognac came to him. If the half-bottle he had already drunk had killed his fear, would not the remainder remove the very cause of that fear?{46} The drink-fumes in his brain assured him it would, and he re-entered the baths, felt his way to the shelf, and carefully groped for the bottle his soul desired. He found it and drank deeply.
And then he sat down and began dully to think—a stupefied brain in an exhausted body. The bottle fell from his nerveless fingers, and the liquor, pouring out, filled the air with the thick, sickly smell of scented alcohol. Through the open door came a stray dog; it gazed round in the darkness and wandered away.
Throughout that night Aristides Kronothos slept heavily and dreamlessly—slept for an hour or two in a sitting posture until, swaying a little, he overbalanced himself and fell stupidly and without protest to the floor. It was there, Rompapas told me, that he was found next morning, still crazy with liquor, still confident that he had averted disaster.
When last I heard of him he was in the Citadel—a mild, gentle figure, pathetically happy, and with a keen and soul-comforting remembrance of his last encounter with George Georges.


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