In the Days of the Comet/Chapter 0
IN THE DAYS OF THE
The Man who Wrote in the Tower
I SAW a gray-haired man, a figure of hale age, sitting at a desk and writing.
He seemed to be in a room in a tower, very high, so that through the tall window on his left one perceived only distances, a remote horizon of sea, a headland and that vague haze and glitter in the sunset that many miles away marks a city. All the appointments of this room were orderly and beautiful, and in some subtle quality, in this small difference and that, new to me and strange. They were in no fashion I could name, and the simple costume the man wore suggested neither period nor country. It might, I thought, be the Happy Future, or Utopia, or the Land of Simple Dreams; an errant mote of memory, Henry James's phrase and story of "The Great Good Place," twinkled across my mind, and passed and left no light.
The man I saw wrote with a thing like a fountain pen, a modern touch that prohibited any historical retrospection, and as he finished each sheet, writing in an easy flowing hand, he added it to a growing pile upon a graceful little table under the window. His last done sheets lay loose, partly covering others that were clipped together into fascicles.
Clearly he was unaware of my presence, and I stood waiting until his pen should come to a pause. Old as he certainly was he wrote with a steady hand. . . .
I discovered that a concave speculum hung slantingly high over his head; a movement in this caught my attention sharply, and I looked up to see, distorted and made fantastic but bright and beautifully colored, the magnified, reflected, evasive rendering of a palace, of a terrace, of the vista of a great roadway with many people, people exaggerated, impossible-looking because of the curvature of the mirror, going to and fro. I turned my head quickly that I might see more clearly through the window behind me, but it was too high for me to survey this nearer scene directly, and after a momentary pause I came back to that distorting mirror again.
But now the writer was leaning back in his chair. He put down his pen and sighed the half resentful sigh—"ah! you work, you! how you gratify and tire me!"—of a man who has been writing to his satisfaction.
"What is this place?" I asked, "and who are you?"
He looked around with the quick movement of surprise.
"What is this place?" I repeated, "and where am I?"
He regarded me steadfastly for a moment under his wrinkled brows, and then his expression softened to a smile. He pointed to a chair beside the table. "I am writing," he said.
"About the change."
I sat down. It was a very comfortable chair, and well placed under the light.
"If you would like to read—" he said.
I indicated the manuscript. "This explains?" I asked.
"That explains," he answered.
He drew a fresh sheet of paper toward him as he looked at me.
I glanced from him about his apartment and back to the little table. A fascicle marked very distinctly "1" caught my attention, and I took it up. I smiled in his friendly eyes. "Very well," said I, suddenly at my ease, and he nodded and went on writing. And in a mood between confidence and curiosity, I began to read.
This is the story that happy, active-looking old man in that pleasant place had written.