For a moment as the gouty old rake had spoken of the boy’s dead brother, the boy had felt within him a sense of warmth: a wakening of dead time, a stir of grateful affection for the gross old man as if there might have been in this bloated carcass some trace of understanding for the dead boy of whom he spoke — an understanding faint and groping as a dog who bays the moon might have of the sidereal universe, and yet genuine and recognizable.
And for a moment present time fades out and the boy sits there staring blindly out at the dark earth that strokes for ever past the train, and now he has the watch out and feels it in his hands. . . . And suddenly Ben is standing there before his vision, smoking, and scowls down through the window of the office at the boy.
He jerks his head in a peremptory gesture: the boy, obedient to his brother’s command, enters the office and stands there waiting at the counter. Ben steps down from the platform in the window, puts the earphones on a table and walks over to the place where the boy is standing. For a moment, scowling fiercely, he stands there looking at the boy across the counter. The scowl deepens, he makes a sudden threatening gesture of his hard white hand as if to strike the boy, but instead he reaches across the counter quickly, seizes the boy by the shoulders, pulls him closer, and with rough but skilful fingers tugs, pulls and jerks the frayed string of neck-tie which the boy is wearing into a more orderly and presentable shape.
The boy starts to go.
“Wait!” says Ben, quietly, in a deliberately off-hand kind of tone. He opens a drawer below the counter, takes out a small square package, and scowling irritably, and without looking at the boy, he thrusts it at him. “Here’s something for you,” he says, and walks away.
“What is it?” The boy takes the package and examines it with a queer numb sense of expectancy and growing joy.
“Why don’t you open it and see?” Ben says, his back still turned, and scowling down into a paper on the desk.
“Open it?” the boy says, staring at him stupidly.
“Yes, open it, fool!” Ben snarls. “It’s not going to bite you!”
While the boy fumbles with the cords that tie the package, Ben prowls over toward the counter with his curious, loping, pigeon-toed stride, leans on it with his elbows and, scowling, begins to look up and down the ‘want-ad.’ columns, while blue, pungent smoke coils slowly from his nostrils. By this time, the boy has taken off the outer wrapping of the package, and is holding a small case, beautifully heavy, of sumptuous blue velvet, in his hands.
“Well, did you look at it?” Ben says, still scowling up and down the ‘want-ads.’ of the paper, without looking at the boy.
The boy finds the spring and presses it, the top opens, inside upon its rich cushion of white satin is a gold watch, and a fine gold chain. It is a miracle of design, almost as thin and delicate as a wafer. The boy stares at it with bulging eyes and in a moment stammers:
“It’s — it’s a watch!”
“Does it look like an alarm clock?” Ben jeers quietly, as he turns a page and begins to scowl up and down the advertisements of another column.
“It’s — for me?” the boy says thickly, slowly, as he stares at it.
“No,” Ben says, “it’s for Napoleon Bonaparte, of course! . . . You little idiot! Don’t you know what day this is? Have I got to do all the thinking for you? Don’t you ever use your head for anything except a hat-rack? . . . Well,” he goes on quietly in a moment, still looking at his paper, “what do you think of it? . . . There’s a spring in the back that opens up,” he goes on casually, “Why don’t you look at it?”
The boy turns the watch over, feels the smooth golden surface of that shining wafer, finds the spring, and opens it. The back of the watch springs out, upon the inner surface is engraved, in delicate small words, this inscription:
“To Eugene Gant
Presented To Him On His Twelfth Birthday
By His Brother
B. H. Gant
October 3, 1912”
“Well,” Ben says quietly in a moment. “Did you read what it says?”
“I’d just like to say —” the boy begins in a thick, strange voice, staring blindly down at the still open watch.
“Oh, for God’s sake!” Ben says, lifting his scowling head in the direction of his unknown demon, and jerking his head derisively towards the boy. “Listen to this, won’t you? . . . Now, for God’s sake, try to take good care of it and don’t abuse it!” he says quickly and irritably. “You’ve got to look after a watch the same as anything else. Old man Enderby”— this is the name of the jeweller from whom he has bought the watch —“told me that a watch like that was good for fifty years, if you take care of it. . . . You know,” he goes on quietly, insultingly, “you’re not supposed to drive nails with it or use it for a hammer. You know that, don’t you?” he says, and for the first time turns and looks quietly at the boy. “Do you know what a watch is for?”
“What is it for?”
“To keep time with,” says the boy.
Ben says nothing for a moment, but looks at him.
“Yes,” he says quietly at length, with all the bitter weariness of a fathomless resignation and despair, the infinite revulsion, scorn, disgust which life has caused in him. “That’s it. That’s what it’s for. To keep time with.” The weary irony in his voice had deepened to a note of passionate despair. “And I hope to God you keep it better than the rest of us! Better than Mama or the old man — better than me! God help you if you don’t! . . . Now go on home,” he says quietly in a moment, “before I kill you.”
“To keep time with!”
What is this dream of time, this strange and bitter miracle of living? Is it the wind that drives the leaves down bare paths fleeing? Is it the storm-wild flight of furious days, the storm-swift passing of the million faces, all lost, forgotten, vanished as a dream? Is it the wind that howls above the earth, is it the wind that drives all things before its lash, is it the wind that drives all men like dead ghosts fleeing? Is it the one red leaf that strains there on the bough and that for ever will be fleeing? All things are lost and broken in the wind; the dry leaves scamper down the path before us, in their swift-winged dance of death the dead souls flee along before us driven with rusty scuffle before the fury of the demented wind. And October has come again, has come again.
What is this strange and bitter miracle of life? Is it to feel, when furious day is done, the evening hush, the sorrow of lost, fading light, far sounds and broken cries, and footsteps, voices, music, and all lost — and something murmurous, immense and mighty in the air?
And we have walked the pavements of a little town and known the passages of barren night, and heard the wheel, the whistle and the tolling bell, and lain in the darkness waiting, giving to silence the huge prayer of our intolerable desire. And we have heard the sorrowful silence of the river in October — and what is there to say? October has come again, has come again, and this world, this life, this time are stranger than a dream.
May it not be that some day from this dream of time, this chronicle of smoke, this strange and bitter miracle of life in which we are the moving and phantasmal figures, we shall wake? Knowing our father’s voice upon the porch again, the flowers, the grape-vines, the low rich moons of waning August, and the tolling bell — and instantly to know we live, that we have dreamed and have awakened, and find then in our hands some object, like this real and palpable, some gift out of the lost land and the unknown world as token that it was no dream — that we have really been there? And there is no more to say.
For now October has come back again, the strange and lonely month comes back again, and you will not return.
Up on the mountain, down in the valley, deep, deep, in the hill, Ben — cold, cold, cold.
“To keep time with!”
And suddenly the scene, the shapes, the voices of the men about him swam back into their focus, and he could hear the rhythmed pounding of the wheels below him, and in his palm the frail-numbered visage of the watch stared blank and plain at him its legend. It was one minute after twelve o’clock, Sunday morning, October the third, 1920, and he was hurtling across Virginia, and this world, this life, this time were stranger than a dream.