The Spectre

The Spectre
(El espectro)
by Horacio Quiroga

Every night in the Grand Splendid in Santa Fe, Enid and I attend the film premieres. Neither storms nor icy nights prevent us from appearing, promptly at ten o’clock, in the pallid half-light of the theater. There, from one box or another, we follow the stories of the film in silence and with an interest that might draw attention to us, if our circumstances were other than they are.

From one box or another, I said; because its location is indifferent to us. And although we might be missing from the same spot some night, the Splendid being full, we settle ourselves, silent and always attentive to the performance, in any already occupied box.

I don’t think we bother anyone; at least, not in any appreciable way. From the back of the box, or between the young woman on the balcony and the boyfriend clinging to her neck, Enid and I, separate from the world that surrounds us, are all eyes towards the screen. And if in truth some people, with a nervous shiver whose origin they don’t quite understand, occasionally turn their heads to look for what they can’t see, or they feel an icy draft they can’t explain in the warm atmosphere, our intruding presence is never noticed; because it’s necessary to admit now that Enid and I are dead.

Of all the women that I knew in the world of the living, none of them had the effect on me that Enid did. The impression was so strong that the images and the very memory of all other women were erased. In my soul it was night, where a single imperishable star rose: Enid. The mere possibility that her eyes could look upon me with indifference would suddenly stop my heart. And at the idea that some day she could be mine, my jaw would tremble. Enid!

She had then, when we lived in the world, a more divine beauty than the epics of cinema have ever launched a thousand leagues and exposed to the fixed gaze of men. Her eyes, above all, were unique; and never did a velvet gaze have such a frame of eyelashes like Enid’s eyes: blue velvet, moist and calm, like the happiness that sobbed in them.

Misfortune put me in front of her when she was already married.

There is no reason now to hide names. Everyone remembers Duncan Wyoming, the extraordinary actor who, beginning his career at the same time as William Hart, had, like him and on par with him, the same deep talent for virile roles. Hart has already given to the cinema all that we could expect from him, and he is a falling star. From Wyoming, on the other hand, we don’t know what we could have seen, when right at the beginning of his brief and fantastic career he created—as a contrast to the cloying modern hero—the tough guy, coarse, ugly, careless, whatever you like; but a man from head to toe in the sobriety, the drive, and the distinctive character of the sex. Hart is still acting, and we’ve already seen it all. Wyoming was snatched from us in the prime of his life, leaving performances that resulted in two extraordinary films, according to the reports: The Wasteland and Beyond What Is Seen.

But the enchantment—the captivation of all the feelings of a man— that Enid exerted over me, was balanced by a equal bitterness: Wyoming, who was her husband, was also my best friend. It had been two years since we’d seen each other; he, occupied with his film work, and I with my literary work. When I found him again in Hollywood, he was already married.

“Here you have my wife,” he said to me, throwing her into my arms.

And to her:

“Give him a good hug, because you will never have a friend like Grant. And kiss him, if you like.”

She didn’t kiss me, but at the touch of her long hair on my neck, I felt with a shiver of all my nerves that I could never be a brother to this woman.

We lived two months in Canada, and it’s not difficult to understand my state of mind with respect to Enid. But not in one word, nor one movement, nor one gesture did I betray myself in front of Wyoming. Only she read in my glance, however calm, how deeply I wanted her. Love, desire… One and the other were twins in me, sharp and mixed; because if I desired her with all the strength of my ethereal soul, I adored her with all the torrent of my material blood.

Duncan didn’t see this. How could he have seen?

When winter came we returned to Hollywood, and Wyoming fell with the attack of the flu that would cost him his life. He left his widow with a fortune and no children.

But he was worried about the solitude in which he was leaving his wife.

“It’s not the economic situation,” he said to me, “but the moral abandonment. And in this hellhole of moviemaking…”

At the moment of his death, he beckoned his wife and me down to his pillow, and said, with a voice already labored:

“Trust yourself to Grant, Enid… While you have him, you have nothing to fear. And you, old friend, watch over her. Be her brother… No, don’t promise… Now I can go to the other side…”

There was nothing new in Enid’s pain or mine. After seven days we returned to Canada, to the same summer cabin that a month before had seen the three of us dining in front of the campfire. Just like then, Enid was staring now at the flames, wrapped in a glacial serenity, while I stood contemplating her. And Duncan was no more.

I must say it: in Wyoming’s death I saw nothing but the liberation of the terrible eagle caged in our hearts, namely the desire for a woman at our side who can’t be touched. I had been Wyoming’s best friend, and while he lived the eagle didn’t want his blood; it fed—I fed it—with my own. But between him and me had arisen something more solid than a shadow. His wife was, while he lived—and it would have been eternally—beyond my reach. But he had died. Wyoming couldn’t demand of me the sacrifice of the Life that he had just unraveled. And Enid was my life, my future, my breath and my yearning to live, that no one, not even Duncan—my intimate friend, though dead—could deny me. Look after her… Yes, but give to her what he had withdrawn on losing his tenure: the adoration of an entire life consecrated to her!

For two months, at her side day and night, I looked after her like a brother. But on the third month I fell at her feet. Enid looked at me, motionless, and surely Wyoming’s last moments arose in her memory, because she repulsed me violently. But I would not lift my head from her skirt.

“I love you, Enid,” I said. “Without you I’ll die…”

“You, William!” she murmured. “It’s horrible to hear you say that!”

“Anything you say,” I replied. “But I love you immensely.”

“Hush, hush!”

“And I have always loved you… You already know that.”

“No, I don’t know that!”

“Yes, you know.”

Enid kept pushing me away, and I resisted, with my head upon her knees.

“Tell me that you knew…”

“No, shut up! We are profaning…”

“Tell me that you knew…”

“William!”

“Just tell me that you knew that I have always loved you…”

Her tired arms surrendered, and I raised my head. I met her eyes for an instant, a single instant, before Enid broke down and cried upon her own knees.

I left her alone; and when an hour later I returned, white as snow, no one would have suspected, on seeing our simulated and calm everyday affection, that we had just distended the cords of our hearts until they bled. Because in the alliance of Enid and Wyoming there had never been love. Their union always lacked a blaze of foolishness, excess, injustice—the call of passion that incinerates all the morale of a man and scorches a woman in prolonged sobs of fire. Enid had been fond of her husband, nothing more; and he had been fond of her, nothing more than fond compared to me, who was the warm shadow of her heart, who burned with everything that she would not get from Wyoming, and whom she knew would give refuge to everything from her that he would not accept.

And later, his death, leaving a void that I had to fill with the affection of a brother… Of a brother, to her, Enid, who was my only thirst for happiness in this wide world!

Three days after the scene that I have just related we returned to Hollywood. And a month later the exact same situation repeated itself: I again at Enid’s feet with my head on her knees, and she trying to prevent it.

“I love you more each day, Enid…”

“William!”

“Tell me that some day you will love me.”

“No!”

“Just tell me that you are convinced how much I love you.”

“No!”

“Tell me.”

“Leave me alone! Don’t you see that you’re making me suffer horribly?”

And when she felt me trembling, mute, at the altar of her knees, she abruptly lifted my face between her hands:

“Just leave me alone, I tell you! Leave me alone! Don’t you see that I also love you with all my soul, and we are commiting a crime?”

Four months precisely, just one hundred twenty days from the death of the man that she loved, of the friend who had interposed me as a protective screen between his wife and a new love…I’ll make it short. Our love was so deep and intertwined, that even today I ask myself with amazement what absurd purpose might our lives have had if we had not found ourselves under Wyoming’s hands.

One night—we were in New York—I found out that The Wasteland, one of the two films that I mentioned, was finally playing; its premiere had been awaited anxiously. I, too, had the liveliest interest in seeing it, and I suggested it to Enid. Why not? We looked at each other for a long moment; an eternity of silence, during which memory galloped back among snowstorms and a dying face. But Enid’s gaze was life itself, and soon between the moist velvet of her eyes and of mine lay nothing but the convulsive joy of our adoration. And nothing more!

We went to the Metropole, and from the reddish half-light of the box we saw Duncan Wyoming appear, enormous and with a face as white as at the hour of his death. I felt Enid’s arm tremble beneath my hand.

Duncan!

Those were his same gestures. The same confident smile was on his lips. It was his same energetic figure that glided along the screen. And twenty meters from him was his same wife in the clasp of his close friend….

While the theater was in darkness, neither Enid nor I uttered a word or looked away from the screen for an instant. And silently, we returned home. But there Enid took my face between her hands. Large tears rolled down her cheeks, and she smiled at me. She smiled at me without trying to hide her tears.

“Yes, I understand, my love…” I murmured, with my lips on the end of her furs, which, being a dark detail of her outfit, likewise represented all of her idolized person. “I understand, but we won’t give in…Okay? So we’ll forget…”

For her entire answer, Enid, still smiling at me, clung without speaking to my neck.

The following night we went back. What did we have to forget? The other’s presence, vibrant in the beam of light that transported him to the screen, pulsating with life; his unconsciousness of the situation; his trust in his wife and his friend; this was precisely what we had to get used to. One night after another, always attentive to the characters, we witnessed the growing success of The Wasteland.

Wyoming’s performance was outstanding and developed in a drama of brutal energy; a small part in the forests of Canada and the rest in New York itself. The central situation involved a scene in which Wyoming, wounded in a fight with another man, abruptly discovers his wife’s love for that man, whom he had just killed from motives other than that love. Wyoming had just tied a handkerchief to his forehead. And stretched out on the couch, still gasping with fatigue, he observed the despair of his wife over her lover’s body.

Seldom have the revelation of a downfall, desolation and hate risen on a human face with more violent clarity than in Wyoming’s eyes in this scene.

The film’s direction had drawn out that marvel of expression to the point of torture, and the scene lasted an infinite number of seconds, when a single one would have sufficed to display, white-hot, the crisis of a heart in that state.

Enid and I, close together and unmoving in the dark, were lost in admiration for our dead friend, whose eyelashes almost touched us when Wyoming emerged from the background to fill the screen, alone. And when he receded again into the ensemble scene, the entire theater seemed to expand in perspective. And Enid and I, with a slight vertigo from this effect, still felt the touch of Duncan’s hair that had reached out to brush against us.

Why did we keep going to the Metropole? What quirk of our consciences brought us there night after night to drench our immaculate love in blood? What omen dragged us like sleepwalkers before a hallucinatory accusation that was not aimed at us, since Wyoming’s eyes were looking off to the side? Where were they looking? I don’t know where, at some box to our left. But one night I noticed, I felt to the roots of my hair, that his eyes were turning towards us. Enid must have noticed as well, because I felt the deep tremor of her shoulders under my hand. There are natural laws, physical principles that teach us how this cold magic works, about the photographic spectres dancing on the screen, mimicking to the most intimate details a life that has been lost. This hallucination in black and white is only the frozen persistence of an instant, the immutable engraving of one vital second. It would be easier for us to see at our side a dead man who had left his tomb to join us, than to perceive the slightest change in the pale trace of a film.

Perfectly true. But in spite of the laws and the principles, Wyoming was watching us. If for the rest of the theater The Wasteland was a romantic fiction, and Wyoming existed only by an irony of the light, if he was no more than an electric facade of celluloid without sides or back, for us—Wyoming, Enid, and I— the filmed scene was blatantly alive, but not on the screen, rather in the box, where our innocent love was transformed into a monstrous infidelity in front of a living husband…. An actor’s farce? Hate feigned by Duncan for that scene of The Wasteland? No! There was the brutal revelation: the loving wife and the close friend in the movie theater, laughing, with their heads close together, at the trust placed in them…. But we didn’t laugh, because night after night, from box to box, his gaze was turning each time more towards us.

“It won’t be long now!” I said to myself.

“Tomorrow will be the day…” Enid thought.

While the Metropole burned with light, the real world of physical laws empowered us and we breathed deeply. But in the sudden cessation of light, which we felt like a painful blow to our nerves, the spectral drama caught hold of us again.

A thousand leagues from New York, encased under the earth, Duncan Wyoming lay sightless. But his surprise at Enid’s frantic forgetfulness, his ire and his vengeance were alive here, lighting up Wyoming’s chemical vestige, moving in his living eyes, which finally ended up fixed on ours.

Enid stifled a scream and hugged me desperately.

“William!”

“Quiet, please…”

“But he’s just lowered a leg from the couch!”

I felt the hair on my back stand up, and I looked: with the deliberation of a wild beast and his eyes pinned on us, Wyoming sat up from the couch. Enid and I watched him stand, advance towards us from the background of the scene, become a monstrous close-up… a dazzling flash blinded us; at the same time Enid let out a scream.

The film had just caught fire.

But in the lit-up theater all the heads were turned towards us. Some had sat up in their seats to see what had happened.

“The lady is ill; she looks like a corpse,” said someone from the orchestra section.

“He looks even more dead,” someone added.

The usher had already handed us our coats and we left. What else? Nothing, except for all the following day Enid and I did not meet. Only on seeing each other for the first time at night to go to the Metropole, Enid now had in her deep pupils a darkness from beyond, and I had a revolver in my pocket.

I don’t know if anyone in the theater recognized us as the people who took ill the night before. The lights went out, came on, and went back out again, and not a single normal idea managed to settle into the brain of William Grant; nor did my tense fingers abandon the trigger of the gun for an instant.

I had been master of myself all my life. I had been until the night before, when against all justice a cold spectre, playing his daily photographic role, raised his strangling fingers towards a theater box to end the film.

As on the previous night, no one noticed anything unusual on the screen, and it was evident that Wyoming was still gasping, glued to the couch. But Enid—Enid within my arms!—had her face raised to the light, ready to scream… Then Wyoming sat up at last!

I saw him get up, grow larger, approach the same edge of the screen, without taking his gaze from mine. I saw him come down from the screen, come towards us in a beam of light; come through the air over the heads in the orchestra section, rise up, approach us with his head bandaged. I saw him extend his claw-like fingers…at the same time Enid gave a horrible shriek, as if with her vocal cords she had ripped away all her reason and set it aflame.

I can’t say what happened in the first instant. But following the first moments of confusion and smoke, I saw myself, with my body hanging off the railing of the box, dead.

From the instant in which Wyoming sat up on the couch, I had pointed the barrel of the revolver at his head. I remember this with total clarity. And it was I who got the bullet in the temple. I am completely sure that I meant to point the gun at Duncan. Except, believing that I was aiming at the murderer, in reality I aimed at myself. It was an error, a simple mistake, nothing more; but it cost me my life.

Three days later Enid in her turn was cast out of this world. And here concludes our romance. But it has not finished yet. A shot and a spectre are not enough to dispel a love like ours. Beyond death, beyond life and its bitterness, Enid and I have found each other. Invisible to the living world, Enid and I are always together, awaiting the announcement of another cinematic premiere. We have traveled the world. Anything is possible, except that the slightest incident in a film should pass unnoticed to our eyes. We have not gone to see The Wasteland again. Wyoming’s performance in that film can no longer bring us any surprises, outside of those that we so painfully paid for.

Now our hopes are placed on Beyond What is Seen. Seven years ago the film company announced its premiere, and for seven years Enid and I have been waiting. Duncan is the protagonist; but we will not be in the box anymore, at least not as we were when we were defeated. In the present circumstances, Duncan can make a mistake that allows us to enter the visible world again, in the same way as our living selves, seven years ago, allowed him to animate the frozen celluloid of his film.

Enid and I now occupy, in the invisible mist of the incorporeal, the privileged position of lying in wait that was all of Wyoming’s power in the previous drama. If his jealousy still persists, if he makes a mistake on seeing us and makes the least movement outward from the grave, we will take advantage of it. The curtain that separates life from death has not been drawn back only in his favor, and the portal is half-open.

Between the Nothingness that has dissolved what was once Wyoming, and his electrical resurrection, there remains an empty space. At the slightest movement that he makes, as soon as he comes off the screen, Enid and I will slip through the fissure into the dark corridor. But we will not follow the path to Wyoming’s grave, we will go towards Life, we will enter it anew. And it’s the warm world from which we were expelled, a love that is tangible and vibrant in every human sense, that awaits Enid and me.

Within a month or within a year, it will arrive. The only thing that worries us is the possibility that Beyond What is Seen will premiere under another name, as is the custom in this city. To avoid this, we never miss a premiere. Night after night, at ten o’clock on the dot, we enter the Grand Splendid, where we settle into a box; empty or already occupied, it doesn’t matter which.


From the collection El desierto (The Desert), 1924.

Translated by Nina Zumel

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