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In broad daylight
  • In broad daylight

In broad daylight

15 min

In broad daylight

15 min

Why this story is worth your time

It’s well known that Cavafy, a firm believer in poetry, didn’t hold his prose in high regard. As Michalis Pieris, editor of Cavafy’s complete prose edition, the Alexandrian Greek poet “abjured three activities: giving lectures, granting interviews, and writing prose.” Nevertheless, albeit the obvious gap between Cavafy’s poems and his works of prose (for the most part articles, short essays and critical reviews,) some of his prose writings are not without elegance, perhaps also including the posthumously published “In Broad Daylight,” which was the only short story written by the poet. This is a tale of mystery in the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe, whose influence on the French poet Charles Baudelaire arose Cavafy interest in the genre of fantastic prose. The story was probably written during the winter of 1895-6, in the mid of the ten-year period that Cavafologists tend to associate with the poet’s spiritual and aesthetic attraction to symbolism and adjacent cultural and artistic trends, including Aestheticism, Esotericism and Decadence. The main plot is narrated by the poet’s friend, who tells of how he missed an opportunity to win a hidden treasure just by failing to show up for a meeting that was agreed upon in a dream. As is proper for fantastic prose, the tale skirts the thin border between reality and dream, between the actual and the supernatural, and thus leaves both the tale’s hearers (in the story) and the reader in a “fantastic climate” of doubts regarding the veracity of the narrator-friend and the ontological status of the depicted phenomena and occurrences – with the question “did it happen or didn’t it?” being left hanging in the air; troubling.

Translated by: Nicholas Kostis

I was sitting one evening after supper in St. Stephen’s Casino at Ramleh. My friend Alexander A., who resided in the Casino, had invited me and another young man, an intimate friend of ours, to have supper with him. Since it was not an evening with music, very few people had come, and my two friends had the entire place to ourselves.

We were talking about various things, and as we did not belong to the very rich, the conversation turned quite naturally to money, to the independence it provides and to the pleasures that attend it.

One of my friends was saying that he would like to have three million francs and began describing what he would like to do and, above all, what he would like to stop doing if he possessed this large sum.

I, being slightly more modest, would have been satisfied with an annual income of twenty thousand francs.

“Had I wished,” Alexander A. said, “I would now be who knows how many times a millionaire – but I didn’t dare.”

These words struck us as strange. We knew our friend A.’s life well and could not recall that the opportunity to become many times a millionaire had ever presented itself to him. We assumed, therefore, that he was not speaking in earnest and that some pleasantry would follow. But our friend’s face was very grave, and we asked him to explain his enigmatic remark.

He hesitated a moment – but then said: “If I were in other company, finding myself unexpectedly among so-called ‘evolved people,’ I wouldn’t explain myself, because they would laugh at me. But we are slightly above so-called ‘evolved people,’ that is, our perfect spiritual development has again made us simple, but simple without being ignorant. We have come full circle. Thus, naturally, we have returned to our starting point. The others have remained midway. They do not know, or even surmise, where the road ends.”

These words did not at all surprise us. Each of us had the highest regard for himself and for the other two.

“Yes,” Alexander repeated, “if I had dared, I would be a multi-millionaire – but I became frightened.

“What I am about to tell you happened ten years ago. I did not have much money then, as now, or rather I had no money at all; but in one way or another I was going forward and living moderately well. I was staying on Shereef Pasha Street in a house that belonged to an Italian widow. I had three well-furnished rooms and a personal servant, not including the good services of the proprietress, who was at my disposal.

“One evening I had gone to Rossini’s. After I had listened to enough foolish talk, I decided halfway through the evening to return home and go to sleep. For I had to be up early the next morning, having been invited on an outing at Aboukir.

“When I arrived in my room, I began, as was my custom, to pace up and down, thinking about the day’s events. But seeing that they were of no interest, I became sleepy and went to bed.

“I must have slept one and a half or two hours without dreaming, because I remember that at about an hour after midnight I was awakened by a noise in the street and remembered no dream. I must have fallen asleep again at about one-thirty, when it seemed to me that a man of medium height and no more than forty had entered my room. He was wearing black clothes, which were quite old, and a straw hat. On his left hand he was wearing a ring set with a very large emerald. This struck me as out of keeping with the rest of his attire. He had a black beard with many white hairs, and there was something strange about his eyes, a look at the same time mocking and melancholy. On the whole, however, he was a rather ordinary type. The sort of man one frequently encounters. I asked him what he wanted of me. He did not reply right away, but looked at me to make sure that he had not made a mistake. Then he said to me, in a humble and servile tone of voice: ‘You are poor, I know. I have come to tell you a way to become rich. Not far from Pompey’s Stele I know a spot where a great treasure lies hidden. I myself want no part of this treasure – I will take only a small iron box which is to be found at the bottom. The rest will all be yours.’

“‘And of what does this great treasure consist?’ I asked.

“‘Of gold coins,’ he said, ‘but above all of precious stones. It comprises ten or twelve gold coffers filled with diamonds, pearls, and, I believe’ – as if he were making an effort to remember – ‘with sapphires.’

“I wondered then why he did not go by himself to take what he wanted, and why he needed me? He did not allow me to voice my objections. ‘I know what you’re thinking. Why, you’re thinking, don’t I go take what I want by myself? A reason exists which I cannot tell you and which prevents me. There are certain things that even I cannot do.’ When he said ‘even I,’ it was as if a radiance came forth from his eyes and transformed him into an awesome magnificence for a second. But he immediately resumed his humble manner. ‘Thus you will do me a great favor by coming with me. I absolutely need somebody and I choose you, because I desire your well-being. Meet me tomorrow. I’ll be waiting for you from noon until four in the afternoon in the Small Square, at the café which is near the blacksmiths’ shops.’

“With these words he vanished.

“When I woke up the next morning, at first there was not a trace of the dream in my mind. But after I had washed and sat down to breakfast, it returned to my memory and seemed quite strange to me. ‘If only it had been real,’ I said to myself, and then forgot it.

“I went on the country outing and had a very good time. We were quite numerous – some thirty men and women – and in unusually high spirits, but I will spare you the details for they have no bearing on my subject.”

Here my friend D. observed: “Nor is it necessary. For I, at least, am familiar with them. Unless I’m mistaken, I was on that outing.”

“Were you? I don’t remember you.”

“Wasn’t that the outing Marcos G. organized before finally leaving for England?”

“Yes, that’s right. Then you remember how much we enjoyed ourselves. A happy time. Or rather, a time gone by. It comes to the same. But getting back to the gist of my story – I returned from the fête quite tired and quite late. I barely had time to change clothes and eat before going off to some friends, a family, where a kind of card-playing evening party was underway and where I remained, playing until half past two in the morning. I won a hundred and fifty francs and went home very pleased. Consequently I went to bed with a light heart and fell asleep instantly, the day’s fatigue not being a minor factor in this.

“No sooner had I fallen asleep, however, than something strange happened to me. I saw a light on in the room and was wondering why I hadn’t turned it off before going to bed, when I saw coming from the back of the room – my room was quite large – from the location of the door, a man whom I recognized immediately. He was wearing the same black clothes and the same old straw hat. But he looked displeased, and said to me: ‘I waited for you this afternoon, from noon until four at the café. Why didn’t you come? I offer to make your fortune, but you’re in no hurry? I will wait for you again at the café this afternoon, from noon until four. Don’t fail to come.’ Thereupon he vanished like the last time.

“But this time I woke up terrified. The room was dark. I turned on the light. The dream had been so real, so vivid that it left me astonished and shaken. I was cowardly enough to go see if the door was locked. It was locked as usual. I looked at the clock. It said half past three. I had gone to bed at three.

“I won’t conceal from you, and am not in the least ashamed to admit to you, that I was very frightened. I was afraid to close my eyes, lest I go back to sleep and see again my fantastic guest. I remained seated in a chair, my nerves strained. At around five, day began to break. I opened the window and watched the street as it awakened slowly. A few doors had swung open, and a few very early milkmen and the first bakers’ carts were passing by. The light somehow calmed me and I returned to bed and slept until nine.

“When I woke up at nine and recalled the trepidation of the night, the impression began to lose much of its intensity. Indeed, I was amazed that I had become so upset. Everybody has cauchemars and I had had many in my life. Besides, this was hardly a cauchemar. It is true that I had had the same dream twice. What of it? To begin with, was I certain of having dreamed it twice? Couldn’t I have dreamed that I had seen the same man previously? But after examining my memory carefully, I dismissed this notion. I was certain of having had the dream two nights ago. Yet what was strange about that? The first dream, it seems, had been very vivid and had left such a deep impression on me that I had it again. Here, however, my logic had a hitch in it. For I did not recall that the first dream had made an impression on me. Throughout the previous day I had not thought of it for an instant. During the outing and reception in the evening I thought about everything except the dream. What of it? Doesn’t it often happen that we dream of persons whom we haven’t seen for many years, or whom we haven’t even thought of for many years? It appears that their memory remains engraved somewhere within the spirit and suddenly reappears in a dream. What, therefore, was strange about my dreaming the same thing in the space of twenty-four hours, even if I hadn’t thought of it during the day? I further told myself that perhaps I had read about a hidden treasure, and that this had secretly worked upon my memory. But regardless of how much I searched, I was unable to discover any such passage.

“Finally I grew tired of thinking and began to dress. I had to attend a wedding, and my haste and the concentration of my thoughts on what I would wear drove the dream from my mind altogether. I then sat down to my breakfast and, to pass the hour, I picked up and read a periodical published in Germany – the Hesperus, I believe.

“I attended the wedding where all the fashionable society of the city had congregated. At that time I had many acquaintances, and because of this after the ceremony I repeated an endless number of times that the bride was very pretty, only slightly pale, that the groom was a fine young man, as well as rich, and the like. The wedding ended around eleven-thirty in the morning. When it was over I went to Bulkeley Station to see a house that had been recommended to me and that I was about to rent for a German family from Cairo who were planning to spend the summer in Alexandria. The house was in fact airy and well laid out, but not as large as I had been told. All the same I promised the proprietress to recommend the place as being suitable. She thanked me profusely, and to arouse my pity she related all her misfortunes to me – how and when her late husband had died, how she had even visited Europe, how she was not the sort of woman who rents her house, how her father had been the doctor of I don’t recall which pasha, etc. This obligation fulfilled, I returned to town. I arrived home at one in the afternoon and ate with a hearty appetite. After I was through lunch and had drunk my coffee, I went out to visit a friend of mine who resided in a hotel near the Paradise Café, so that we might arrange something for the afternoon. It was the month of August and the sun was scorching hot. I was walking down Shereef Pasha Street slowly to keep from perspiring. The street, as always at this hour, was deserted. I encountered only a lawyer with whom I was transacting business relevant to the sale of a small lot in Moharrem Bey. It was the last piece of a rather large ground-plot that I was selling bit by bit, thus covering part of my expenses. The lawyer was an honest man, and this is why I chose him. Only he was talkative. Better he had cheated me a little than pestered me with his rambling. He launched into an endless harangue on the slightest pretext – he talked to me about commercial law, Roman law, dragged in Justinius, mentioned old lawsuits of his from Smyrna, praised himself, explained a thousand equally irrelevant things to me, and all the while held on to my clothes, something I abhor. I was forced to endure the chatter of this ridiculous person, because every so often when the course of his babbling ran dry, I would inquire about the sale which was of vital interest to me. These efforts were taking me out of my way, but I stayed with him. We passed the sidewalk of the Stock Exchange on Consul Square, we passed the small street that connects the Big and the Small Square, and finally by the time we reached the center of the Small Square, I had obtained all the information I wanted and my lawyer, remembering that he had to pay a call on a client who lived in the area, took his leave of me. I stood for a moment and watched him retreat, cursing his babbling which in so much heat and sun had made me go out of my way.

“I was about to retrace my steps and walk to Paradise Café Street when all of a sudden the idea that I should be in the Small Square struck me as odd. I asked myself why, then remembered my dream. ‘This is where the famous owner of the treasure told me to meet him,’ I thought to myself and smiled, and mechanically I turned my head toward the site of some blacksmiths’ shops.

“Horrors! There was a small café and there he sat. My first reaction was a sort of dizziness and I thought I was going to fall down. I leaned against a stall and looked at him again. The same black clothes, the same straw hat, the same features, the same gaze. He was staring at me intently. My nerves stiffened so, that I felt liquid iron had been poured into me. The idea that it was noonday – that people kept passing by who were unconcerned and under the assumption that nothing extraordinary was happening, while I, only I, knew that the most horrible thing was happening, that a ghost was seated over there, possessing who knows what powers and arising from what Hell, from what Erebus – paralyzed me, and I started to tremble. The ghost did not lift his gaze from me. I was now overcome with terror lest he stand up and approach me, lest he speak to me, lest he take me with him, and what human power could come to my defense against him! I flung myself into a carriage, giving the driver some remote address, I don’t recall where.

“When I had collected myself somewhat, I saw that we had almost arrived at Sidi Gabir. A little calmer, I started to examine the matter. I ordered the driver to return to town. ‘I’m mad,’ I thought, ‘surely I was mistaken. It must have been someone who resembled the man in my dream. I must go back to find out for certain. In all probability he’s left, and this will be proof that it wasn’t the same man, because he had told me that he will wait for me until four.’

“With these thoughts I arrived at the Zizinia Theater; and there, summoning all my courage, I ordered the driver to take me to the Small Square. As we approached the café, I felt my heart beating to the point of snapping. I had the driver stop a short distance away from it, pulling his arm so violently that he nearly fell from his seat, because I saw that he was drawing very near the café, and because… because the ghost was still there.

“I then began to subject him to close scrutiny, trying to find some dissimilarity with the man in the dream, as if the fact that I was sitting in a carriage and subjecting him to close scrutiny – something anyone else would have misinterpreted and demanded an explanation for – were not enough to convince me that it was he. On the contrary, he returned my gaze with an equally scrutinizing gaze and with a countenance full of anxiety for the decision with which I was faced. It seemed that he intuited my thoughts, as he had intuited them in my dream, and to dispel any doubts as to his identity, he thrust his left hand toward me and shoed me – showed me so clearly that I feared the driver would notice – the emerald ring that had impressed me in my first dream.

“I screamed in terror and told the driver, who now began to feel uneasy about his client’s health, to drive to Ramleh Avenue. My only aim was to get away. When we reached Ramleh Avenue, I told him to head for St. Stephen’s, but as I could see that the driver was hesitating and mumbling to himself, I got out and paid him. I stopped another carriage and had it take me to St. Stephen’s.

“I arrived there in a dreadful state, entered the main hall of the Casino and, seeing myself in the mirror, was appalled. I was as pale as a corpse. Fortunately the main hall was empty. I fell onto a divan and began to think of what I was going to do. To return home again was impossible. To return to that room where he had entered as a supernatural Shadow, he whom shortly before I had seen sitting at an ordinary café in the form of a real man, was out of the question. I was being illogical, for of course he had the power to hunt me down anywhere. But already for some time now I had been thinking incoherently.

“Finally I came to a decision. This was to turn my friend G. V., who at the time was living at Moharrem Bey.”

“Which G. V.,” I asked, “That eccentric who spent his time studying magic?”

“The very one – and this played a part in my choice. How I managed to take the train, how I arrived at Moharrem Bey, looking right and left like a madman in fear that the ghost would reappear next to me, how I stumbled into G. V.’s room – I remember only faintly and with confusion. All I remember distinctly is that when I found myself with him, I started to cry hysterically and to tremble all over as I related my horrible adventure to him. G. V. calmed me and, half seriously, half jokingly, told me not to be afraid; that the phantom would not dare to enter his house, or that, even if it did, he would chase it away at once. He was familiar, he said, with this type of supernatural apparitions and knew how to exorcise them. He further implored me to believe that I no longer had cause to be afraid, because the phantom had come to me with a specific purpose – the acquisition of the iron box which, apparently, it was not in his power to obtain without the presence and aid of a human. He had not achieved this purpose, and must already have realized from my terror that there was no longer any hope of achieving it. He undoubtedly would go on to persuade someone else. V. regretted only that I had not informed him in time to intercede, so that he himself may have seen the phantom and spoken to it; because, he added, in the History of Phantoms, the appearance of these spirits or demons in broad daylight is extremely rare. But I found none of this reassuring. I spent a very restless night and the next morning I woke with a fever. The doctor’s ignorance and the excitation of my nervous system were the cause of a cerebral fever from which I nearly died. When I came to recover somewhat, I asked to know what day it was. I had fallen ill on August third and assumed that it was the seventh or the eighth. It was the second of September.

“A small trip to an island in the Aegean hastened and completed my convalescence. I remained for the entire duration of my illness in the house of my friend V., who cared for me with that kindheartedness you both know. He was annoyed with himself, however, for not having had character enough to dismiss the doctor and to cure me through magic, which I also believe, in this instance at least, would have cured me just as quickly as the doctor did.

“See, my friends, the opportunity I had to become a millionaire – but I didn’t dare. I didn’t dare, and I don’t regret it.”

Here Alexander stopped. The deep conviction and utter simplicity with which he had related his story prohibited us from making any comments about it. Besides, it was twenty-seven minutes past midnight. And since the last train for town left at twelve-thirty, we were obliged to bid him good-bye and take our leave hurriedly.

*This story was published in Modern Greek Short Stories, Odysseas, 1993.

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