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Touch Not the Cat
By Mary Stewart
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Mary Stewart
All right reserved.
It is my soul that calls upon my name.
-- Romeo and Juliet, II, ii
My lover came to me on the last night in April, with a message and a warning that sent me home to him.
Put like that, it sounds strange, though it is exactly what happened. When I try to explain, it will no doubt sound stranger still. Let me put it all down in order.
I was working in Funchal, Madeira. Funchal is the main town of that lovely Atlantic island, and, in spite of its having been a port of call for almost every ship that has crossed the ocean since some time in the fourteenth century, the town is still small and charming, its steep alleys tumbling down the lava slopes of the island's mountain spine, its streets full of flowers and trees, its very pavements made of patterned mosaic which glistens in the sun. I was working as receptionist and tourist guide at one of the new hotels east of the town. This sounds an easy job, but isn't; in tourist time, which in Madeira is almost the whole year, it is hard indeed; but what had led me to apply for the job was that very few qualifications seemed to be needed by a "Young lady of good appearance, willing to work long hours." Both these qualifications were mine; appearance was just about all I'd got, and I would have worked any hours to make some money. Whether I was the best for the job I don't know, but it happened that the people who owned the hotel had known my father, so I was hired. The old-boy network they call it. Well, it works, as often as not. You may not get the brightest and the best, but you do get someone who talks your own language, and who is usually someone you can get back at the way it will hurt, if they let you down.
It's barely a year since the things happened that I am writing about, but I find that I am already thinking of my father as if he were long gone, part of the past. As he is now; but on that warm April night in Madeira when my love told me to go and see him, Daddy was alive, just.
I didn't sleep in the hotel. The friends who owned it had a quinta, a country estate a few kilometers out of Funchal, where the pine woods slope down the mountains toward the sea. You reached the place by a lane which led off the Machico road, a steep gray ribbon of lava setts, bordered in summer with blue and white agapanthus standing cool against the pine woods, their stems vibrating in the draft of the running water in the levada at the road's edge. The house was big and rather ornate in the Portuguese style, standing in wide grounds full of flowers and carefully watered grass and every imaginable exotic shrub and flowering tree, dramatically set against the cool background of mountain pines. The owners lived there all winter, but at the beginning of April, most years, went back to England to their house in Herefordshire which lay just across the Malvern Hills from ours. They were in England now, and the quinta was shuttered, but I lived in what they called the garden house. This was a plain, single-story building at the foot of the garden. Its walls were pink-washed like those of the big house, and inside it was simple and bare-scrubbed floors and big echoing gray-walled rooms slatted all day against the sun, beautifully quiet and airy, and smelling of sunburned pines and lemon blossom. My bedroom window opened on one of the camellia avenues which led downhill toward the lily pools where frogs croaked and splashed all night. By the end of April the camellias are just about over, the browned blossoms swept away, almost as they drop, by the immaculate Portuguese gardeners; but the Judas trees are in flower, and the Angel's Trumpets, and the wisteria, all fighting their way up through a dreamer's mixture of cloudy blossom where every season's flowers flourish (it seems) all year. And the roses are out. Not roses such as we have at home; roses need their cold winter's rest, and here, forced as they are into perpetual flower by the climate, they grow pale and slack-petalled, on thin, oversupple stems. There were roses on the wall of the garden house, moonbursts of some white, looseglobed flower which showered half across my bedroom window. The breeze that blew the rain-clouds from time to time across the moonlight tossed the shadows of the roses over wall and ceiling again and again, each time the same and yet each time different, as the roses moved and the petals loosened to the breeze.
I was still awake when he came. He had not been to me for so long that at first I hardly recognized what was happening. It was just my name, softly, moving and fading through the empty room as the rose shadows moved and faded.
Bryony. Bryony. Bryony Ashley.
"Yes?" I found I had said it aloud, as if words were needed. Then I came fully awake, and knew where I was and who was talking to me. I turned over on my back, staring up at the high ceiling of that empty room where the moonlit shadows, in a still pause, hung motionless and insubstantial. As insubstantial as the lover who filled the night-time room with his presence, and my mind with his voice.
Bryony. At last. Listen . . . Are you listening?
This is not how it came through, of course. That is hard to describe, if not downright impossible. It comes through neither in words nor in pictures, but--I can't put it any better--in sudden blocks of intelligence that are thrust into one's mind and slotted and locked there, the way . . .
Excerpted from Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart Copyright © 2005 by Mary Stewart. Excerpted by permission.
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