Bridge 19

September 25th, 2010

Bridge 19–THE PHAEDO

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The fear of death can penetrate our dreams–

Though we assume that death ends consciousness,

Erasing memory, and all that seems

To give a fleeting soul a fixed address.

For anyone to say, “I welcome death,”

As Socrates said calmly to his friends,

Consoling them with his last living breath,

Leaves most of us suspecting he pretends–

For any man should either run or fight

When faced with death. What mortal would submit,

Prepared to enter into that long night

Of his free will, to say, “All right . . . I quit!”?

Yet struggle as we may in death’s embrace

We know we’re doomed to die in any case .

[Spring, 1965]

We all sat as if silently regarding the lake when Henry remarked, “Ironically, Jack, being blind has reinforced my belief that human beings are only innocent bystanders at the bizarre spectacle of their mortal experience. In good times, we’d better appreciate what life has accidentally offered us, to taste, or smell . . . or see,” he patted Shoko’s hand, “for we’ll have plenty of opportunity to reflect on the random tragic possibilities of life–what the gods, or Mother Nature, can do to us, or those we know and care for, or what we insist on doing to each other.” He paused and reflected a moment, then added, “It’s as a kind of defense mechanism that we become the inventors and then proud custodians of whatever meaning we decide all this tragic insanity may have, in those myths and metaphors we embrace as our literature . . . and religion.”

He paused again, then said, “Betty was the one always seeking meaning–that most elusive quarry. I could see she


had become a different woman when she came back to New York with Jordan . . . as his Cleopatra. She’d always been ambitious, but now that ambition seemed focused on a new conception of herself. Even her reading seemed defined by that quest for new identity. She was reading Plato and the Greek playwrights, and a lot of Japanese literature–my first introduction to any of that–including Mishima’s modern Noh plays, as I recall. She even had Jordan reading them, told him she was trying to see herself as Komachi . . . or the Lady Aoi.

“And she constantly invoked the Countess Rostovna–on any subject–asking herself what the countess would do, or think. Approaching the role of Cleopatra she was under great emotional pressure, but it was as if a part of her mind were detached, trying to determine what Cleopatra would do by thinking what the countess would have done, to see the one identity through the filter of the other. I knew Betty pretty well by then, but that didn’t make it any less mystifying. She’d been mesmerized by the ‘Shangri-La mystique,’ as she herself called it. Her sense of herself was now more . . . imperial. Then, after that imperial pose had been refined by being Cleopatra on stage, it was part of what she was forever after, only confirmed at the death of the countess, when Betty formally inherited her mantle. I only met the countess once, but was struck by the instinctive aristocratic bearing that had evidently put Betty under her spell, and provided the role model.”

“When we came to see Betty as Cleopatra,” Shoko said.

Henry nodded. “Yes. The first time I met you, too,” and smiled at her. “A very memorable meeting . . . though you seemed an odd pair . . . and, at the time, I was most concerned about trying to understand Betty’s strange moods.”

“The countess hated to fly, but decided to–if I’d go with her. She said it might be worth facing death to see Betty as Cleopatra, then talked about it all the way home. I was


impressed, too. Jordan was excellent–took possession of the stage as the great Roman hero–but Betty still dominated him, led him to his ruin–then embraced him in his death.” Shoko paused. “I feel as though I’m describing what happened here.”

“I should have gone with you,” I said. “It would have brought me back to work on the film more quickly, I’m sure. But, just then, I wasn’t going anywhere without Laura. I even felt guilty about having become so absorbed in Betty’s affairs again. Then, after her triumph in New York, Betty became so busy that she seemed to be taking me for granted, just assuming I was preparing the script that would make her a movie star, too, and I may have resented that. I don’t know.

“She kept promising to come back out, between plays, to stay with the countess, and talk to Randall and me. She’d call occasionally, with great enthusiasm in those first few months. It was into the next year before she began to ask, ‘What’s taking you so long, Jack?’ and say, ‘Send me a copy of what you’ve got.’ But I didn’t have a script I was willing to show her, liked what I had less and less. And Laura and I were busy here at the cabin, caught up in seeing our dream taking shape. Betty’s script was still important to me, but I began to feel like it was something I was holding in reserve, while what was happening now was happening to Laura and me, right here.

“I thought about how absorbed in the project I’d been at the time we’d analyzed our dreams, when I’d have guaranteed a script within weeks. But six months later I had stalled out. For Betty, it wasn’t just wanting to make the film; she was also concerned about her relationship to Jordan in your new theatre company. When she came out to see the countess that next summer, she complained that Jordan still dominated her there, that her future was being determined by you two men back in New York. So she needed to do the film, in part, because it was a project over which Jordan would have no control.”


“Well, Betty always got her own way with me,” Henry said. “I suppose Jordan did want to be the traditional actor-director of the new company, with her as his brilliant co-star–Vivian Leigh to his Lawrence Olivier–but Betty considered herself at least equal partner by then, Cleopatra to his Antony. And things were going well enough that Jordan didn’t even want to hear the word ‘Hollywood.’ I wasn’t that sure about Betty in the movies myself. It seemed a distraction, given the opportunities they had in theatre. And it did seem this lake property had brought you and Laura back together, as Tom had hoped when he’d deeded the property to her–so I didn’t think you needed Betty back in your life just then, either.”

“It is funny how you can get totally lost in some building project, like spending a week putting on the roof–working, eating, sleeping, and only worrying about what tomorrow’s weather will be like. Laura and I worked together perfectly, and Christine, who was getting older all the time, enjoyed both the work and play as much as we did. Laura used to say, ‘I’m sure Tom gave me this property for the three of us to share.'”

“That sounds like the good life to me, Jack,” Henry said.

“Yes, but that’s not why I was neglecting the film script. When Betty first went back to New York, and Laura came back to me, I was so happy to have her back I suppose I did begin to think, ‘Why not take a break? There’s plenty of time for Betty’s script.’ Then, once we began building the cabin, working with my hands, with Laura–and with Christine–was pure pleasure. I gradually lost my sense of direction on the script . . . but not really because I was too busy. During that summer’s short visit, I only saw Betty briefly, at Shangri-La, and she accused me of having withdrawn my spirit, having lost my enthusiasm for ‘our film project’–which meant I’d betrayed her in the only way that mattered. How else could I explain months passing with nothing to show for it?”


“Weren’t you still doing research on the countess’s early years in Hollywood?” Shoko asked.

“Yes, I was. But I already had too much material in some ways–plenty of bizarre incidents from the countess’s early life, here and in Europe–but no strong sense of where the center was, or of Betty’s presence there . . . or how it all should end. I know the countess sensed this frustration, since at first I’d been showing her things, then months began to pass when I was just pretending that I was making any progress at all . . . except here at the cabin. Then I might begin to neglect work on the cabin as I tried to force some progress on the script, so I was able to feel guilty toward everyone . . . Laura and Christine, Betty and Randall, and, especially, the countess.”

Henry nodded, then laughed. “Yes, Betty’s frustration definitely began to show by then. She had low tolerance for frustration–always thought she should do something about it.”

“But she stopped even calling me, let the countess be her advocate. ‘When I played Cleopatra, Jack,’ the countess told me one day, ‘I thought I was the reincarnation of the spirit of the Nile. But I’ll never think of Cleopatra again except as Betty, as she took possession of those marvelous lines. I wonder how the historical Cleopatra would’ve done as Shakespeare’s queen, one of the half dozen greatest roles in theatre–perhaps the greatest for a woman. I don’t think she’d have held a candle to Betty.’ And she’d shake her head and laugh.

“I don’t think it was writer’s block, exactly, but, by early the following year, I’d begun to wonder what had happened to my earlier enthusiasm. So, almost a year and a half after I’d promised a script in a few months, I again went to see the countess–thinking she might want to consider another writer.

“She brushed that suggestion aside, saying, ‘No, Jack, it’s you or no one.’ But she felt it was time for the three of us to talk it out, together, and called Betty while I was there. Betty


said, yes, she wanted to come talk to Randall anyway, would be between shows soon, and could come spend a full week at Shangri-La. Though the countess had encouraged Betty to go East to play Cleopatra, saying, ‘You’re more likely to find the me you’re looking for there than here,’ she was now delighted to have her coming ‘home’ for a real visit. But I knew they were exchanging letters–mostly in French, I believe–about once a month, and on the phone almost as often–which had me wondering what kind of a plot they might be hatching.”

“Before that meeting, it was obvious the countess had made up her mind about something,” Shoko said. “She had some kind of secret with Thomas. But she never told me . . . and, if she had, I don’t know what I could have done.”

“Her increased identification with Betty in that year and a half, perhaps enhanced by their separation, must have been a problem for you,” I said. “I remember you telling me that, on that short earlier visit, they had discussed Socrates’ arguments in the Symposium all evening, and, while the countess hadn’t said as much, Betty told you she’d begun to think of herself as Alcibiades, betraying her teacher for the lesser ambition–lured away by Jordan and fame to the New York stage.”

“Yes,” Shoko said, “Betty liked to dramatize everything. I wasn’t troubled about her, for she had her life in New York, as she’d wanted, however much she might feel she’d deserted us. It was the countess I was concerned about. She began brooding a lot, which wasn’t like her. If I’d known what her doctor was telling her I’d have understood, but she was going to see him with Thomas, sometimes without even telling me.”

“And, for Betty, Jordan still offered the best opportunity,” Henry said. “They were magic on stage together, and that was what people wanted to see. Starting their own company had given them the chance to do things they both wanted to do–for Jordan mostly Shakespeare, for Betty things like


Antigone and Hedda Gabler. She wasn’t into her experimental mode yet; she still most wanted to do exactly those roles on the New York stage she was getting a chance to do. But she did also want to come back to California to make that movie. Perhaps she felt she owed it to the countess . . . and to you. She no doubt felt it would be good for her career . . . as it certainly was. But, more likely, she just wanted to do it.

“She was always insisting on having more say in what we were doing in New York–but it was only after the film that Betty became almost quixotically experimental in her own projects. By then, it was Jordan who began to feel manipulated. So, in hindsight, I suppose she was right to feel that if she were finally going to break free from Jordan’s domination it was going to be through establishing credentials that he’d had nothing to do with winning for her. And then, when she was finally ready to do that, you weren’t ready for her.”

“Just before she came out, she posed the question directly to me on the telephone, ‘Come on, Jack, when will this film go into production? I’m not getting any younger, either!’ When I was still evasive, she got mad enough to suggest that Randall might find something else for her to do if it took me too long.”

“But she was talking to the countess on the telephone, too, of course,” Shoko said, “and the countess was telling her, ‘You just come on out, my dear, and we’ll see. I have a plan.'”

“I thought it significant that the countess asked us to let Christine come visit at Shangri-La for the weekend before Betty was to arrive, to be there to greet her. I asked if it was all right to bring Laura along when Betty got there, and she said, ‘Of course, Jack–she’s part of the family, too, isn’t she?’

“When Laura and I drove into the driveway, late Monday afternoon, Christine was pestering Thomas in the garden, but came running to meet us, which pleased Laura. You and the countess both welcomed us warmly, with stories about what


Christine had been doing, but nothing yet about Betty. I noticed the countess was looking frail, but in good spirits–as if all were going well. And Thomas had fixed his stuffed pork chops for dinner, which he knew I particularly liked.

“We first saw Betty at dinner, and she came in as radiant as a visiting queen. The countess was never more gracious, though, again, there were little signs that made me anxious about her health. We talked about how things were going in New York for the new theatre company, about the role Laura had in a television series the countess had evidently been watching faithfully, about Christine’s ‘lessons’ with you–the countess quizzing her on the first five presidents, and saying things to her in Japanese. Thomas even smiled at that, as he was serving dessert, but, beyond that, was unusually tense.

“I was also struck by how much Betty was coming to remind me of the countess, in part by consciously adopting her mannerisms, giving the impression that she was serenely in charge of everything within her sphere. Even there in the same room with the countess it was as if she were deferring to her on her own ground as a kind of noblesse oblige. I often thought of that later, after Betty had become the mistress of Shangri-La. She had already inherited the spirit of the older woman, who sat watching her with such obvious pride.

“The countess was more effusive in praising Thomas for the dinner than usual. Then she asked him to serve coffee in the library, where she said she’d like to talk to Betty and me, if the others would excuse us, and I thought, ‘Here it comes.’

“After Thomas served the coffee, and was dismissed with the comment that the countess would want him later, I began to apologize again for my delay, saying, ‘I know I’ve neglected our script, but promise a working draft in three months . . . by early summer.’ I spoke about scenes I’d been re-considering recently, and some things that had surprised me. The countess


tried to show a modest interest, but clearly had her own agenda–as I became more conscious of how worn she looked.

“She said, ‘That’s fine, Jack. I know we can depend on you.’ Then she hit us with it. ‘But I no longer expect to see the film you’ll make.’ When we reacted to deny that, she said, ‘No need to be disturbed. What is to be is to be. That’s what I want to talk to you about.’ She picked up the book on the coffee table next to her chair, which she’d evidently been reading earlier in the day, and said, ‘We’re all fond of Plato, aren’t we? The Symposium, the Republic, his conceptions of Diotima and Socrates, have come to inform our own values. But how well do you know the Phaedo?’ She handed the book to Betty. Betty said she knew it pretty well, as part of the trilogy on Socrates at the end of his life–the Apology, the Crito, the Phaedo–that had the integrity of Aeschylus’ Oresteia . . . with the advantage of a strong central character.

“Then the countess said, to Betty, ‘Well, I’m giving you this book, my dear. Those three dialogues are in it and I’m through with it . . . will never read them again. But I hope you’ll read them again soon . . . the Phaedo in particular.’ Then she smiled. ‘I give it to you as a token–as I intend another gift to be–to provoke you to think. I’ve thought about Socrates a lot recently, and have decided I don’t really need to see your film. Most of the people I’ve known who’ve been the subject of films, or authors who’ve had their books turned into films–even playwrights–have been disappointed. Eugene O’Neill’ . . . she paused and looked off into space, ‘with whom I was once quite intimate–long, long ago–said he preferred not to see productions of his plays, since he’d staged them so much better in his own imagination. Now, since I saw you as Cleopatra in New York, my dear girl, I’ve imagined the film you will make–have imagined you assuming that mysterious role, the younger me–to the point that I begin


to dream about it. I now see myself, as I once was, in you. That’s quite an interesting experience–and . . . finally . . . it’s all I need, personally, to be content.’

“Betty said she’d only begun to face the challenge of assuming that identity, that she wanted to watch some of the countess’s old films again while she was in California this time, and some Greta Garbo films, to study the lighting for close-ups–but didn’t want to hear the countess talk about her death.

“Then the countess said, ‘I understand, dear, but feel I have nothing more to add . . . am more likely to be in the way. And, like Socrates, I’m ready to go. Remember his analysis at the end of the Apology? May I?’ She took the book back from Betty and located the passage. ‘Yes, here. Socrates says, “there is great reason to hope that death is a good.” . . . either it is “a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness,” like a long sleep–an eternal, peaceful, sleep, such as we all yearn for at the end of a hectic day–or “there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another.”

“‘I once had major surgery and was given an anaesthetic. It rendered me unconscious for several hours. I had to submit, assuming that, if I died during the operation, I’d never have to worry again. Then, for those long hours, I was oblivious. If that’s the nature of death, it’s nothing to fear, is it? Or if, as Socrates believes, our spirits leave the body behind and go to another world, that’s even better. He tells Crito he’s had a dream in which a woman, dressed all in white, has come to him and said, “The third day hence, to Phthia shalt thou go.” He expects to re-enter the world of eternal values he describes in Book X of the Republic–from which this life has been an ephemeral excursion. If we do go to join other spirits in eternity, to converse with people I talked to in this room before you were born, or spirits that lived long, long ago, how wonderful that would be. So that’s what I hope for.


“‘The truth, as Socrates says, is that we don’t know what to expect of death. It may be that, as Whitman puts it in Song of Myself, “to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”‘ She walked over to the bookshelf and took a copy of Whitman from the shelf, then, after thumbing the pages for a moment, said, ‘Yes, here, he says, “as to you Death . . . it is idle to try to alarm me . . . no doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before.” Think what it would be to talk about death with Whitman . . . and Socrates. So, like the Socrates of the Phaedo, I’m ready for death . . . as one whose time has come . . . ready to reject the body, enslaving me here in the realm of the changeable–now that it begins to fail me.’

“‘I’m no Christian. I can’t identify with Christ’s martyrdom on the cross, have always seen it as perverse, in such a young man–and so easily avoided. But I do accept the martyrdom of Socrates, an old man drinking the hemlock in witness to his life in philosophy. I find that quite natural. He says his whole life has been a preparation for death, that that’s what philosophy is, that he expects to enter a realm of eternal values from which this brief life has been but a truancy.’

“Then she looked at me. ‘Do you suppose he knew Plato would immortalize him here? Or, to consider it another way, do you think we’d be as impressed by the historical Socrates as we are by the Socrates that Plato created? Now that’s your job, Jack, to immortalize me, as more than I was. I trust you–and Betty, when she finally assumes that identity–to do that.’

“We objected, but she quieted us with a wave of her hand.

“‘Now, let’s not be sentimental–that’s not Socratic, is it? And, since I do want the film to be made, I’ve set up certain incentives. Beyond financial arrangements with Randall to assure the money to produce the film is there, I’ve decided to leave this property to you, my dear. Not for its monetary value, but, as I’ve remarked, for its provocative associations.’


“‘This property?’ Betty seemed shocked at the idea.

“‘Yes. Like the book, as a token. I’ll be through with it. But I’ve decided to leave you the property with the understanding that you’ll live here as you make that film that Jack will write and Randall will produce . . . the film the two of you will then make together. I’d like you to take your time and make the best film you can make . . . in the spirit of Shangri-La. Promise me that . . . and I’m ready to die.’

“We both insisted that she had a long time to live, and would certainly see our film . . . within two years at most. She smiled as Betty began to outline her current plans, and how she could schedule time that fall and the following summer to do the bulk of the filming. The countess began to talk about her own experiences in filming, and, as they exchanged ideas, I realized that one reason I’d been stalled on the script was that problem of finally seeing these two as one–and now, if I closed my eyes, I wasn’t quite sure which one was talking.

“It was clear the countess had made the case she’d wanted to make to Betty. She smiled again as she said to me, ‘I’m not leaving you anything, Jack . . . except your memories of me. Then I expect the greatest incentive I can offer you to finish the script you already have in mind will be my death.’ That came as a shocking idea to me, but I was soon to know how correctly she’d calculated that, too. She was a shrewd old woman. At that point you looked in, Shoko, to tell us it was Christine’s bedtime and that she wanted to say good night.

“Then, as you left, the countess remarked, ‘I’ve made financial arrangements for Thomas and Shoko, as well, so they won’t have to work. Shoko may decide to return to Japan, but I hope you’ll try to keep both of them here. It’s been their home, too . . . for a long time. Let Shoko help raise Christine, teach her flower arranging and the tea ceremony, as well as about American presidents. Wouldn’t that be nice? An


American woman with the grace and gentility of a Japanese? I’m conscious of how little I can influence Christine’s future. I thought of trying to entail this property, through you, to her, because I see so much of you in her . . . and because I love her so much. But property doesn’t work that way here, the way it once did in most of Europe, to establish an aristocratic line. No, this will be your property to do with as you wish–once you’ve made the film. I hope you’ll retire here, as I’ve done, but also know how important New York has become to you.’

“We were still telling her she had a long life ahead of her when she asked me to leave her alone with Betty for a few minutes, if I would, and I rejoined Laura, Christine, and you in the dining room, where you were working on a picture puzzle of the Grand Canyon. Christine was especially pleased when you let her put in the last piece. Then we fell to speculating about the state of the countess’s health, without thinking about Christine, until she asked, ‘What’s wrong with her?’ We all laughed and assured her that nothing was.

“When Betty and the countess came in, Betty looked disturbed, as if she knew, but the countess was as serene as ever. Christine, proud of the puzzle, was showing it off. The countess praised her, then said, ‘Come, let’s get you ready for bed. Then I’ll read you a story.’ She was in the habit of doing this, and Christine enjoyed it, so off they went–leaving me with three other women, each with her own claim on me. I would have liked to ask Betty what the countess had told her, but decided to save that for morning–though I noticed how quickly she began talking to you as Laura and I left the room.”

“Yes, asking me questions about the countess’s health,” Shoko said. “But I knew less than she did at that point.”

“Then, alone in the bedroom, Laura couldn’t resist asking, somewhat coquettishly, as she got undressed, ‘Didn’t Betty share this same bed with you the first time she was here?’


“‘Well, yes, she did, but, as you know, I was mostly thinking about you–that old habit.’ Laura gave me a sideways look, suggesting that wasn’t funny. But she didn’t ask about you, and I thought, ‘I mean to tell Laura the truth now–but not necessarily the whole truth.’ Then, as she snuggled into my arms, I found myself thinking how blessed I had been to have occupied that same bed with three beautiful women, all in the house that night, so something of what Laura had found intolerable when she’d run off with Tom was still going on in my mind, I admit. Then, as if picking up the unspoken theme, Laura asked, ‘Do you think it bothers the countess, us sharing a room in her house when we’re not married? And when your wife, to whom she’s so attached, is here in the same house?’

“I answered, ‘I think it would amuse her to know that thought had even occurred to you. You know her story almost as well as I do–what do you think?’

“You’re probably right. Nothing of that kind would offend her.’ Then, after a moment’s reflection, ‘But she’s not looking good, Jack. It’s more than her age. She was forcing that cheerfulness tonight. I know it has Shoko worried.’

“But Laura went to sleep before I did, and, as I lay there in the dark, pondering this situation, I noticed the door to the bedroom slowly opening. My first thought was of you, and what a nice way to be surprised that had been. But, this time, how would we explain it to Laura? Then, as the door continued to open, I thought, with a kind of shudder, that no one was there at all. Then I saw Midnight highlighted by the light from the hall, and still thought I might be imagining things, perhaps from the undefined concern that was keeping me awake in the first place. I again had the feeling of being under a kind of supernatural spell, which, long as I had known Midnight, had increased if anything. Her eyes, glowing in the dark, captured my attention. She was there all right.


“Since the cat usually slept in Christine’s room, I thought she’d gotten closed out, and wanted someone to let her in. I wondered why she hadn’t just made noise enough to get Christine to. But then Christine appeared there, too, behind the cat, like a ghost in her white night gown. She wasn’t crying, but, as her face came into focus, it had a very serious expression for a child of eight, as, without saying a thing, she beckoned me to follow her. I put on my robe, and did so.

“I wasn’t in the habit of wandering about the countess’s house in the middle of the night, so felt a little uncomfortable, but, curious about what was bothering Christine, I thought I could take her and her cat back to her room, the next door down the hall, get them settled in–then come back to bed.

“But they went in the direction of the countess’s room, instead. Christine took my hand, the cat going ahead of us, and when we turned into that hall I could see the door to the countess’s room was open. I remembered she’d told Christine she’d read her a story, and thought, ‘Well, she must have fallen asleep while Christine was with her, which might well have left the child bewildered . . . and sent her looking for Laura or me.’

“Midnight went as far as the open door, then, those eyes burning in the dark, doubled back to circle around my legs, as if pushing me toward the room. I decided I’d close the countess’s door, take Christine and the cat back to Christine’s room and close her door, then go back to my room–and close our door. ‘The problem seems to be too many open doors.’

“Midnight was still leading the way, on into the countess’s room, with Christine following, pulling me by the hand. The countess was awake, sitting in her chair next to her reading lamp, which she’d turned off, so that the moon shining through the open window provided the only light in the room. She spoke very soberly. ‘That’s a nice domestic picture, Jack, you and Christine and Midnight. I sent Christine to get you,


because I have something important to say to you alone. Christine, dear, now I’d like you to go get Thomas for me, while I talk to your father. Can you do that? You have on your slippers, don’t you?’ She looked at her. Christine just nodded and, after some hesitation, turned to go. ‘Then go on to bed, dear. Tell Thomas to tuck you in on the way back. Your father will look in on you as he goes back to bed, won’t you, Jack.’ I nodded, and Christine left, the cat following her.

“‘Listen to me carefully, Jack, for we don’t have long. I just now drank the hemlock, after I sent Christine for you–as I heard you coming, in fact. By the time Thomas gets here I may be dead. Then he can handle everything, as I’ve prepared him to do. He has some inkling of my plan, if not the details, so should be the one least surprised, and best able to help with necessary arrangements.’ She pointed to the glass on the table at her side, and the small bottle sitting beside it. ‘I have chosen this way to die, Jack . . . in honor of Socrates. Not only are Socrates and Whitman right that death may be luckier than we imagine, but Socrates has another argument at the end of the Apology that I’ve taken much to heart lately. That it is life, not death, that under some conditions is intolerable.

“‘I found out about two months ago that I have an inoperable cancer of the colon and that I do not have two years to live, perhaps at most six months, if I’m willing to dwindle away gradually under some chemotherapy treatment, where I’d lose all my hair and begin to look like someone who has leprosy–as it becomes more and more painful to live at all. I decided I’d rather leave this life with some dignity. That was when the example of Socrates came home to me so strongly. Better to take the hemlock. I’m sure Thomas more or less knows that’s what I’ve decided. He has been to the doctor with me, and has helped to cultivate and prepare the hemlock, but I haven’t discussed my plans with him beyond that.’


“I could have called for help right then, to try to save her life, but, looking her in the eyes, had no inclination to do so.

“She began to review Socrates’ arguments again, as they were clearly on her mind, but then smiled at me. ‘I know you understand, Jack. Born halfway around the world from one another, we were both raised as Christians. But I’m not a Christian now. Nor are you. I identify–as I die–with Socrates. So, as I asked Betty to do, I want you to read the Phaedo, too. At my funeral if they’ll let you.’ She laughed.

“‘If they will . . . I will,’ I said. She nodded.

“‘If I had life insurance they probably wouldn’t pay it–would declare this a suicide–but I have none. As I told you earlier, I’m leaving Shangri-La, and all that goes with it, to Betty. I saw her walking in the garden a little bit ago . . . before I sent Christine for you. I had told her about my condition. Then I’m leaving half of the rest of what I’ve accumulated, in securities, to Thomas and Shoko, to assure their independence, and most of the rest, in trust, to Randall, so you can produce our film . . . which is important to me.’

“Then she took my hand and looked deeply into my eyes. ‘I told you I was only leaving you your memory of me . . . and whatever you want of my books . . . tell Shoko. But I’m also leaving you the responsibility of seeing that these people accommodate themselves to their legacy . . . as my moral executor . . . or my son. Do you understand what I’m saying?’

“I didn’t, but I nodded.

“‘So I wanted you to be the one I died with–my witness–as a Japanese samurai might do.’

“She pointed to a note on the table. ‘I’ve written this note, but leave it to you, and Thomas, to explain things to those who need to know. Try to spare Betty . . . and Shoko . . . that burden. Now, help me over to the bed, Jack. I begin to feel it in my extremities . . . just as Socrates did.’


“I did as she asked. It was obvious that she was failing fast as I helped her to the bed, but she composed herself quite carefully. Then she closed her eyes, and I thought she might have died, very peacefully. But it was at that point that Thomas came into the room. She opened her eyes and spoke to him as he reached to turn on the light. “No, leave it off. It’s better this way . . . don’t you agree? Did you put Christine to bed?’ He indicated that he had. ‘Then, please call Doctor Herman. As soon as you tell him I’ve taken ‘the potion,’ he’ll know . . . he’ll come. Then I trust you to help the new mistress of this house in any way you can. And to look after Shoko.’ She paused. ‘And to look after yourself, Thomas.’

“Thomas was obviously shaken, but was still the most stable of spirits. He said, ‘Yes, madam,’ then, after looking at her for a moment as if about to say something more, he began to leave the room. Putting my hand on his arm, I asked if Christine was all right. He looked at me strangely, as if not understanding what I’d asked, then said, ‘Oh, yes, she’s in bed . . . but was very restless. We should check on her soon.’

“I thought about doing that then, but didn’t want to leave the countess, who seemed to have lost consciousness again, while Thomas was out of the room. As I looked at her lying there, I couldn’t resist putting my hand, very gently, on her soft, white hair, caught in a ray of moonlight. She opened her eyes and looked at me, then said, quietly, “We go our ways. I to die, and you to live. Which is better, God only knows,” which I recognized as Socrates’ final comment in the Apology.

“After that she didn’t stir. I heard footsteps and looked around, expecting Thomas, but again saw Midnight–this time followed by you. You took one look at the scene, gave a brief gasp, and stood there frozen. Then the cat, with a plaintive little yowl, jumped right up on the bed next to the countess, black against the glimmering white of the covers in the


reflected moonlight. I got to you just in time to catch you as you fainted–then, for some reason, began shouting for help.

“I was dazed by a sense of the responsibility the countess had placed on me. I felt the need to do something, but knew I had already failed this choice spirit when she most needed help, and could only stumble around like a clown in the chaos that had descended upon this room, this house, this universe. I’d never felt so pitifully ineffective. But at last it seemed I had someone I could help. I gathered you up in my arms and was standing there holding you, again uncertain of what to do, when Laura came in. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘what happened?’ Then, looking at the bed, ‘to the countess!’ She turned on the light.

“I said, ‘The countess has taken poison. I think she’s . . .”

“Laura hurried to the bed and took the countess’s hand in her own–then, suddenly, there was real anguish in her face. ‘Oh, Jack! She knew all evening!’ But Laura was immediately efficient, knowing what to do better than I did. She said, ‘We must call her doctor. Look . . . she took some kind of drug. Check to see if you can tell what it was.’ At that point she looked at me still standing there holding you, and I almost imagined a smile beginning at the corners of her mouth. ‘Put Shoko on the couch over there, Jack. How shocking it must be for her. They’ve been as close as mother and daughter.’

“By that time Thomas was back, and, as if reporting to the one he saw to be in charge, told Laura that the doctor was coming. Then told her what he knew about the countess’s situation, as they began consulting with one another in very practical terms about what had to be done.

“I put you on the couch, as Laura had directed. You gave a remote sort of moan as you came to and then looked around the room. When your eyes came to focus on the countess they sharpened as if in terror, and the moan became more articulate, something like, ‘Ohhh . . . I should have . . . .’


“I said, ‘There’s nothing you could have done. She’d made up her mind to die this way, planned it very carefully. And there’s nothing any of us can do now. So just lie still.’

“‘This is such a nightmare. I must wake up from it soon,’ you said, as, now fully conscious, you struggled to sit up.

“Looking out the latticed door to the garden, I again caught sight of Midnight, directly in line with the moon, perched on the old adobe wall and pointing, it seemed, toward the fountain, like a tableau from a Halloween cartoon. When I saw the female figure come into the picture my first bizarre impression was that the witch had arrived. But it was Betty. She’d heard the commotion from the garden, and seen the countess’s light come on. By the time she got to the fountain the cat was gone, having leaped from the wall on the far side.

“I went out to meet Betty, trying to tell her what had happened as we came back toward the room. I hadn’t told her much, however, when I heard her cry out as she saw Laura and Thomas and you gathered around the bed, to which she then rushed, to sit down next to the countess to check her condition for herself. I stepped back toward where the cat had been. When I got to the wall, I did hear Midnight howl again, like an old woman in anguish, but this time it seemed to come from inside the house. ‘Now, where did that come from? The front of the house? Is the doctor here already?’

“But no . . . the sound had come from the direction of Christine’s room, as if the cat were gathering her as well, so I started to go back through the countess’s room toward the child’s room. I made it almost to the door from the garden when I saw Christine standing there across the room, staring at the countess’s body, with the cat in her arms. The cat was staring at me, however, again with that hypnotic quality–as if her wisdom were brooding over all this human insanity, trying to abstract some meaning from it–to tell me something.”


Assignment for Bridge 20:

Read Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, or, even better, see the Elizabeth Taylor, Rex Harrison, Richard Burton film Cleopatra (or, better yet, do both). It’s the image of Cleopatra for Betty that we want.

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