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Unclean Island

Tony Crisp

The small boat chugged slowly onwards, causing the only ripples on the sea that day to spread in a broad wake as if to tell the whole stretch of water about the intruder.  The boat was making its way to a large island which squatted on the horizon, gleaming as white as snow in the afternoon sun.  There are just three people on the boat; the owner, a doctor and his daughter.  The doctor looked at the other mans weather-beaten face.

“What is the island like?  From here I think I can see a whole town on the hillside.”

“That’s correct Signor.  Many years ago it was a flourishing sea port but the population grew too big, and at the same time a misunderstanding with the Greek mainland cut off all trade. All the rich merchants left, and the town emptied.  Now as you know signor, it is a leper colony.”

The doctor looked back at the island and said nothing. He was not an outstanding man to look at, medium height with a spare but athletic physique, and a young face that hid his forty years.  His brow was permanently lined, but his bright blue eyes seemed to defy any worry.  Their hue was so bright that the very sea seemed to gather colour from them.  He turned once more to the boatman.

“You are not Greek are you?”

The boatman smiled showing his fine broad teeth.

“No signor Brooks, I am Italian.  I was very happy in Italy. I worked a little and played a lot, I think I played too much. I had to marry a Greek girl who was visiting friends in my village.  My father he was furious, he likes their wine, but not their women.” He paused to laugh and the doctors eyes sparkled even brighter.

“But why did you come to Greece?” The Italian showed his teeth again.

“Well signor Brooks my wife is a fine big woman, strong like a horse, she give me many children.  When my father died he left me this boat, my wife felt homesick, and here I am.”

The doctor’s daughter who had been seated quietly watching them from the stern got up from her seat on the luggage, walked over, and took her father’s arm. The trio stood silent watching the island slowly grow larger.  It was she who broke the silence.

“Father, what do you thank all those people on the island are thinking about; I mean about you coming here to them and bringing a cure for their disease.”

He kissed her hand.  “I suppose for some it is a promise of new life, some will not believe, and some do not care. But darling you must remember that I cannot cure them all.  Only those who have been recently afflicted with the disease have a fair hope of any cure.”  She looked sad, then smiled and hugged her father.

The boatman looked at her.  “Miss Helen, why didn’t you stay at home, or on the mainland?  This island is no place for a pretty signoritta like you.  Why, I am afraid to walk the street there. When I bring people to the island I leave quickly as soon as they are off the boat.  My wife makes me go to church before she lets me in the house.”  Helens eyes sparkled, trying to reflect the glory of her fathers.

“I am not afraid; father has come here to cure them, besides I have nowhere else to go.  My mother died while I was young; I go wherever father goes, and anyway I want to help him on the island.”

“Mamma mia, may the Blessed Virgin protect you.”  And so saying the Italian fervently crossed himself, and then concentrated on the management of the boat.

The island was very near now; people could be seen standing watching the boat.  The town, even from this distance showed signs of decay; its past glories were evident from the many fine buildings lining the sea front.  Thin columns of smoke rose from the cooking fires of the present inhabitants and adding to the haze of beat that covered the town. Nearly two thousand unfortunates lived and died here.  The island had a terrible history.  In all its years of providing shelter for those who society had rejected, not one had been received back by the main land.   All had lived and died here.  Even visitors curious to see the place were few.  Curiosity has no force when superstition walks abroad.  These poor lepers shunned society with as much strength as their condemners. The sense of their uncleanness is strong within them.  As the smitten conscience of the Bibles lepers forced them to call unclean, and ring their bell, so it forces these poor trapped souls to feel they are no longer humans.  They have no tights, they ask none, save to die; and die they do, but as quickly their countrymen send others to fill the gap.  Enrolled from the families of rich and poor alike come the rejected and none leave save in death.”

The small boat with its precious cargo came to a shuddering stop alongside the jetty.  The shore was crowded.  This was no usual sight; the whole town had turned up.  There was no cheering or rowdiness as is usual with a large crowd. Some waved, even less smiled, and they were pathetic in their calmness.  The doctor looked at the many faces and was filled with a great humility; his work was soon to begin.

Helen noticed his abstraction and took his arm. “Come father let’s step ashore.  Signor Platoni, will you please put all our luggage on the jetty please.”

They stepped ashore just in time to greet the priest who was walking towards them with an ear to ear smile.  It looked as if he could hardly stop from laughing out loud through sheer joy.  He was of medium height but had a fine pair of broad shoulders and two large hands.  His face, apart from a few wrinkles caused by his gargantuan smile, looked ageless, and could not be classified as from any particular country. But most noticeable was his air of inner peace and thorough good humour.

“Hallo, hallo. You are doctor Brooks, and this is your daughter; you don’t know how pleased I am to meet you both. Doctor,” he said, with tears welling up into his dark eyes, “you are Gods answer to all our prayers. Look,” he said, quickly wiping the tears from his eyes and gesturing at the crowd, “they have all come to see you.”

The doctor and Helen were evidently touched by the good mans fervour and asked leave to enable them to dismiss the boatman.  The priest turned to the crowd, and, in a voice long used to speaking in the open air, told the watchers of the doctor’s merits.

“Friends, although this good doctor does not know you personally, he loves you as much as I do for he has spent much of his life studying your ailment, now he has come in answer to our prayers, and with Gods help, and your co-operation, he will do his utmost to cure those who will agree to treatment.”

The crowd were enthusiastic and a cheer went up.  By this time doctor Brooks and Helen had come back from the boat, which was now leaving with all haste.  The poor boatman could hardly be blamed, for the gathering on the shore presented a strange and alarming sight for even the most hardened heart.  Many had little left of their hands and feet.  Some could not walk without assistance; others faces were malformed by the horrible disease, and some were unable speak because of its effect.

Helen knew what to expect before she had come ashore, because often she had read her father’s books, and studied the pathetic illustrations.  Those described above, however, are the worst cases. The majority had only slight skin blemishes and disabilities that were not noticeable.

A young man of the latter class stepped forward to be introduced.  His jet black hair neatly out and combed and his proud eyes burning with inner fire.

“This is Antonio Venzal,” said the priest, putting his arm on the young mans shoulder, as a father does to a son when he is proud of him. “He is a very fine artist, and is an inspiration to our friends here on the island. And this, Antonio, is doctor Brooks and his fine daughter Helen, who have brought hope to the whole island.”

Antonio looked at the doctor and then to Helen. Her chestnut hair shone in the sun as if burnished, and formed a halo round her strong and pretty face. Helen returned his gaze frankly, and he dropped his eyes quickly as the small voice of his conscience whispered “unclean, unclean” into his consciousness.  His admiration of her beauty was natural, but he was ashamed and dejected.

“Doctor, I thank you on behalf of all on this island for coming in the time of our need for help; thank you.” And so saying he turned and strode quickly up the hill, and disappeared in a side turning in the town.

“Come”. said the priest, “I must show you to the house you are to live in.”  And so he took Helen’s and her father’s arm and led them up the hillside.

“Your house is in good repair, and has sufficient furniture to make it comfortable.  The doctor and his wife who worked here before you lived there.”

“Was that Doctor Grietz?” asked Helen’s father.

“Yes.” said the priest. “He was a good man, but without your knowledge of the recent developments in your science. By the way doctor, every one here calls me Father Peter, or just Peter, so call me as you will.”

They walked slowly up the hill each with their own thoughts.  The crowd had disappeared, but as they passed through the streets Father Peter exchanged greetings with any passers by.

“Father Peter;” said Helen, Antonio Venzal, is he a Greek?” She had been thinking of him all the time since he had left. She had noticed his sudden change of mood after she had looked at b him, and could not understand it.

“No Miss Helen, he is Italian of good parents and has a lively mind.  He paints some very good pictures when he has a mind to; but of late he has become oversensitive about his condition…, but here is your house.”

“Its wonderful.” exclaimed Helen. “It looks in very good repair too.”

The house had only a ground floor, and was surrounded by an extensive garden with many shady trees. Very little else was growing in the garden because the dry climate and burning sun dried out all but the hardiest plants.  However it fitted in with the surrounding countryside.  They walked over and looked in one of the windows, which was large matching the rooms.

“I believe it belonged to a wine merchant once,” said Father Peter, “but it’s not too large for you, and you can use it as a clinic if you please.”

“Do you think you will like living here Helen?” asked her father smiling at her.” They walked inside as he asked her.

“Yes father I am sure I shall love it,” and she hugged him and swung him round the room in an impromptu dance, much to the amusement of Father Peter, who was wearing another of his huge smiles.

“Well, doctor Brook and Miss Helen, I must leave you now, but if you want me for anything the church is just up the hill a little. “You will find the larder here with a fair amount of food stocked and your luggage is being brought up. Good day.”

“Cheerio Father Peter, and thank you for your welcome and hospitality.” And the two men shook hands.

The first days passed quickly for both Helen and her father.  She spent the time arranging the house to her liking and also visiting the people, who she now classified as patients. Her father visited also, but spent most of his time at the house he was to use as his hospital. It was next to the church, a very large house which once belonged to the governor of the island.  Also he trained a small number of conscripted patients to help him in the hospital.  He was going to use the hospital as a treatment centre, and to board a few of the very worst patients.  The equipment was rather small, but he had to make do because the grant of money that the island received was inadequate and most of it had to be spent on food.

Father Peter was a daily visitor to the hospital, and was always ready to help in any way.  His church was small but cosy. He always seemed to be working for; encouraging, or helping his wards.

Antonio often visited them in their house and they found him to be witty and lively; but he often seemed to cease up during a visit, and would then sit quietly until he found an excuse to leave.

At last, after a little over a fortnight, doctor Brooks was able to open his hospital and begin his treatments. Each person had been told at what time and day they could be seen. This was to enable him to receive and examine each patient thoroughly.

The only people speaking English on the island besides Helen and her father, were the priest, Antonio and an old man who had visited England in his youth.  However both Helen and her father could speak Greek and Italian well enough for them to understand, and as the days passed they became fluent.

Out visiting one morning Helen met Antonio who was talking to an old Greek fellow, but left him on seeing her.

“Hallo miss Brooks, would you mind if I walked with you?”

“Not at all” she said. “It is very kind of you to offer. I have finished my visits. Father asked me to call on two old people.  They are alright for the present but father is going to visit them this afternoon.”

It was a beautiful day, the birds sang in an effort to drown the sorrows of their audience, and the sun had pleasantly warmed the sea breeze.  They walked slowly along the winding streets, not caring where they were going, just talking and walking in the pleasantness of each others company.

“Your father is already doing very fine work on the island,” Antonio said smiling.

“Yes, he’s wonderful,” Helen said, bending down to pick a small flower that had bloomed by the wayside. “Have you been to see him yet at the hospital?”

He looked a little unhappy as his thoughts turned to his ailment. “Yes I have seen him and I have to visit the hospital regularly. Your father is very enthusiastic about my case; but I hate talking about it, let’s talk about other things.”

She saw another flower and was about to pluck it, but Antonio laid his hand on her arm to restrain her.

“Please don’t pick it. It always makes me sad when a beautiful living thing is forced to die.”

She looked at it again. Such a simple little flower growing and swaying in the breeze.  She smiled and it seemed to smile back. Looking at the one she had already picked, she was sorry because this one did not smile.

Antonio laughed as he saw her changing expressions. She saw the joke and they walked on.

Antonio, you love beauty very much don’t you?”

“Yes miss Brooks I do very much, and so do you, otherwise you would not have seen the flower smile.”

“Don’t call me Miss Brooks,” she said, “call me Helen, it’s much friendlier.”

She looked questioningly at him, and smelled the picked flower. “But how did you know the flower seemed to smile?”

“Because, Miss Brooks, er Helen; because nature smiles at all those who truly love art.  But come with me down to the beach, it can look very lovely during the morning before the heat of the day spoils one for such things.

“That would be wonderful; I haven’t been down to the beach since I arrived.”

Of f they went, walking together through the narrow streets going down the hill.  The people they passed looked up from their fires as the couple passed by and exchanged greetings.

“Antonio, where do the people get all their wood from to burn.”

“Well, there is a little on the island, he said, “but most of it comes from the mainland with the food.  As many people as possible have to cook on one fire to make all the wood last.”

The decline was shallower now and they could spot the sea, it reflected so much light that it dazzled them.  At last they walked out from the buildings on the sea front. Immediately they felt smaller as the horizon receded and the blue sky gave height and depth to their view. Helen looked round at the scene.

“Oh, it’s as calm as on the day I arrived. Let’s go down to the edge of the sea, I want to see if it is really as blue as it looks,” and she ran lightly down on to the sand, her lithe figure seemed to radiate energy, and her small feet hardly touched the ground. Antonio smiled as he saw how happy she was, but followed her slowly.

“Antonio, you were right, it is lovely here; and the sea is as blue as it looks, but it’s translucent and you have to look deep into it to see the colour.  Father Peter said you paint; you surely must have painted this view from the beach.”

He looked back at the town. “Yes, I have painted it from several different spots. But aren’t you out of breath after running across the beach like a Fairy Queen making an entrance in ballet.

“Oh no, I am too full of high spirits to be out of breath.” And she ran a few yards along the beach, then twirled in a pirouette until her dress furled out like an opening rose.

Antonio, for a moment, was silent in appreciation of her vigorous beauty.

“You are well named Helen,” he said, “for you are very like my conception of the Lady of Troy, but your hair is more like a halo, and your skin is like the fragrance of a peach’s bloom.

She coloured a little, then smiled and said, “Antonio, you are really laughing at me, and you are a flatterer.”

He looked full at her, and then with a mocked expression of graveness said, “But I am an Italian and an artist; and what artist would deny your beauty; besides, flattery runs in the blood of my gallant countrymen.”

They both laughed and walked slowly along the beach.­

The morning was clear and showed the island at its best. The town stretched away to their right, rising tier upon tier up the hillside.  The houses looked part of the islands growth, and their colours were from nature’s palette.

The hills rose above the town, and ran the full length of the island sweeping round in a great sheltering arc.

They walked along slowly, remarking on the points of beauty on the island. Then followed a period of silence while Helen looked long and hard at Antonio without him noticing. Then she said, “Antonio, in what way are you affected by your ailment. I have looked and found nothing wrong. You are brown with the sun, and your eyes twinkle as in health.”

His carefree expression left him and he looked down at the sand. “You ask, so I must tell you. My body is marked with whitish patches, and I am unable to grip objects as strongly as is normal. I feel weak, but my face is spared, and I look normal because I am not long afflicted.”

He stopped walking and looked at her. “But please let’s not talk further on the subject because it makes me feel very subdued.”

Helen saw he was hurt, and felt the pain herself. “Antonio, please, you must forgive me, I had no idea I would hurt you.”

How could I do anything but forgive you Helen, but let us walk back to town, I have the urge to paint.”

“May I see your work Antonio, I am no critic, but I am appreciative.”

“Of course you can.” he said. “I will show you my whole collection; but, please, not today.”

They retraced their footsteps in silence, and soon entered the town. Before they parted company Helen reminded him of his promise to show her his work. “…and I will come as soon as you will allow me. You must show me more of the island too.”

A smile came back to his face. “I will remember my promise, and one day I will take you to the most beautiful spot on the island.” He pointed to the top of the hill right above the town.

“Right up there, hundreds of feet up in the blue. From there all these houses look unreal, like toys.  I must go now, but I will remember.”

****************************************

 

Doctor Brooks looked up from his letter as Father Peter put his head round the door.

“Come in Father Peter, I am just finishing a letter to a friend of mine in England. I am hoping that he will be able to supply me with some medical odds and ends that I need.”

The doctor folded the letter and slipped it into an envelope. Father Peter entered the small room; he sat down in a chair and looked round the room at the doctors impedimenta arranged in cupboards and shelves around the walls.

“Is the supply boat coming tomorrow Father?” asked the doctor.

The priest tore his gaze away from a gleaming set of scissors and scalpels. “Yes, it should be here about midday.”  This time his gaze alighted on a large diagram of the human body, showing all the necessary organs that one is gifted with.

“Ah, that’s good,” continued the doctor, “I shall be able to send this letter to be posted.”

At last the priest had seen enough of the physical facilities, and looked round to see the doctor smiling at him.

“I’m sorry doctor, what was it, something about a letter.  I got quite carried away by your diagram there that I forgot to be polite.”

The doctor laughed and said, “That’s alright Father, it was only about posting this letter.  Most of the patients seem to find that diagram interesting; some of them hardly see me at all.  But what did you call to see me about Father?”

“Fortunately it’s not for your professional advice. No I just came in to see how you are progressing, and to see if you wanted any help.” He looked at the doctor enduringly, as if his whole happiness depended on being able to help somebody.

“Father, you have been too good already for me to give you more work to do, but I have some good news.”

He got up and opened a filing cabinet displaying hundreds of forms and cards. “These are the records of all the people here. They were started by the other doctor. He wrote them out and diagnosed with no hope of a cure. Thanks to God I am not in the same position.  I have at last finished the examination of all the patients here, and I am fairly confidant that from 40% to 50% of them can expect a cure. The rest are very uncertain cases, most of them have been infected for a very long time. Of course practically every new patient arriving here can expect a cure. It sounds like miraculous news but it’s true.”

Father peter got up and took the doctor by the hand.

“Doctor, I shake you by the hand. This is the best news I have ever had. God smiles once again on this island.” The good priest laughed out loud, and clasped his hands as in  prayer. Then he looked a little wistful.

“That odd 50% with no hope is like lead on my heart.” But he brightened up as he thought how that percentage would drop as the cures began, and the new patients could come, all with hope.

“Your visit today has been worth all my prayers and work. I would double it; no treble it for the same result.” The priest stood silent looking at the diagram again, but not seeing it.  The doctor closed the filing cabinet and sat down behind his desk.

“I would like to have some trained nurses here on the island to help me, but I can offer them no pay, and the grant does not help. Now I have finished the initial examination of the patients I will have to find time to train these helpers of mine more thoroughly.  But let’s forget my work for a while. My daughter and I have been here for nearly a month now and you have never dined with us, so tonight Father Peter you must come and have dinner with us at the house.”

Father Peter looked up from the diagram with a gleam in his eye. “What a remarkably good idea. You know doctor this is a most wonderful day.  I will accept your offer and will bring with me a gem from my only treasure; … a bottle of wine.”

The doctor led the way and they slowly toured the small hospital. No two beds were the same, some being roughly made from planks of wood, others just a shambles of iron uprights and springs.  A few mattresses were necessarily laid on the floor through a shortage of beds.

Most of the beds were occupied by people slowly losing their slender grip on life. Their resemblance to human beings disappearing with the furtherance of the disease. Unfingered stumps where once were hands. Feet that could no longer fulfil their purpose. Their faces were a mockery to mans inherent beauty, and pictured souls in torment. The priest still recognised Gods eternal spark in them, and blessed each as he passed their bed. Even these sights could not dim his smile, but they changed it to a gentler unimpassioned countenance that brought hope of a beyond to many. The two men finished their rounds and parted with a promise to meet in the evening.

Helen was at home helping their newly acquired cook to prepare the evenings meal, and to tidy the house; not that it needed tidying, but she was a woman. She had been to the hospital during the afternoon on her usual visit, and was delighted to hear about the arrangements for dinner.

The cook was a new arrival on the island, and had volunteered for the job of cook. She said she had been a cook on the mainland, and her cooking proved it true. She was young with a natural, pleasant face. She was plump and curved like a kitten, and she had the same playful humour. However she was essentially a peasant girl, with a love for small children and duties of the house.  They worked happily together cleaning and laying the table and mostly talking.

“Miss Helen, your father said he would cure me quickly because I am not long ill. I asked Father Peter if I could believe it to be true; and he said I could.”

Helen sat down and brushed the hair from her eyes.

“I am sure my father will be able to cure you, whatever he says he can do, he will do. But what will you do when you are cured.”

The young girl stopped work and looked dreamily out of the window.  “When I am well I want to get married. All the time I dream of having a little house where I can raise a wonderful family. I want to bear my husband many fine children to make him proud. Strong sons and beautiful daughters, what man could want more? I have a young man back in my village. He is very big and strong, a real man. When he holds me I feel so small, like a child, yet I am not afraid. He is a real man and makes me feel so much like a; like a; woman.”

Helen laughed again at the girls puzzled expression.

“You’re delightful. I am sure your young man will still love you when you return to your village.

“Yes I am going to get well so quickly that he will not have time to forget me.”

At this moment Helens father entered the room. “Hallo Helen, I can see you have both been busy. Everything’s spotless, the tables laid, and as soon as I entered the house I noticed a wonderful aroma of food. I really don’t know how you two girls cook so well with the small choice of foods we have on the island.”

He seated himself in a chair near the window and looked up at the two girls.

“Have you been working hard again today?” asked Helen.

He stretched himself out in the chair.  Not more than usual I have finished all of the initial examinations, and can now give my full attention to treatments and observation of results. And those helpers of mine at the hospital are learning nursing as quickly as I can teach them. Helping me up there has given them a new interest in life. I wish I could think of something to keep the rest of them occupied. I am sure they must get bored to tears doing nothing all day except cook, eat and sleep.

Helen and Cristella the cook had finished all the work now, and the meal was nearly ready to serve. Helen went to her room and changed into a light blue frock which matched her eyes perfectly and enhanced her young figure. When she returned to the dining room Father Peter was there to greet her.

“Why, Miss Helen, you look like an angel smiling from the blue depths of the sky.”

“Thank you very much Father Peter, but I am sure I am not good enough to be an angel. However, I am sure one day you will have the necessary qualifications.”

Father Peter took her answer in good fun, and through the window they both watched the fast sinking sun burn its way into the earth’s horizon.

“Do you know where my father is.” said Helen, at last turning away from the window and addressing Cristella who was waiting to serve the dinner.

“Yes Miss Helen, he has gone to wash; he should be here any minute now.”

And indeed the doctor entered the room at that moment. The three friends sat down, the oil lamps were lit, and the dinner began.

All the meals had to be prepared from the uncooked foods that were sent twice weekly from the mainland. Therefore the dinner was no banquet, but it was made tasty by good cooking, and was made pleasanter by the conversation and the wine that Father Peter had brought.

The time passed with much good humour, laughter and talk about the outside world. The meal was at last finished, the dishes cleared away and the conversation returned to topics of the island. Father Peter was the main speaker and talked about the people’s lives on the island.

“Yes that’s true doctor, marriage between two of the unfortunates here is allowed. I think you have seen a few weddings since you came. It is mostly the young people who want to marry. The church has no argument with it, and I encourage them as much as I can. When a couple marry, it gives them a purpose in their otherwise unpurposeful life here on the island. Also it gives each of them someone to love, and be loved by and cared for. Love and affection means a great deal to these people.”

Helen looked into the priests eyes with a very motherly expression, and said “Do they have children? I have seen a few healthy children about but I didn’t know whose they were.”

“Yes my dear, they often have children. But the parents here exercise a much greater control over childbirth than does the outside world. If a couple are suffering badly from their ailment, then the very last thing they would do would be to have a child. They are very strict with themselves about such things; they would die rather than give birth to a child with their own affliction. But your father has examined most of the children here. They are very rarely affected by their parent’s illness. So any couple can get married without fear of the result. Some of the children stay here on the island when they grow up.  Few parents send them away to friends on the mainland. I believe that two of the girls helping your father at the hospital have grown up here.

The doctor nodded his head. “That’s right. They are extremely helpful girls and very keen on their work.”

Father Peter sipped his glass of wine and carried on his narrative. “All the men who are capable of working help me with my projects. I have them work on house repairs, a little agriculture and some of them go fishing in the harbour to supplement our food rations.”

“What does Antonio Venral do?” asked Helen.

The priest smiled understandingly. “Oh, he is a good boy. You know he paints quite a lot. Sometimes curious visitors buy a picture from him, and he always gives the money to me. However he does help with the fishing and building, but he is a quiet boy, he likes to be alone.  I think that he is oversensitive about his illness. But he always helps me when I ask him. He is honest, intelligent, and unselfish and has a great love for beauty. Maybe that’s why he is so sensitive about his illness. But I am sure that your father will cure him; he deserves it.”

Helen got up and walked over to the window.   Full moon had risen and shone through the window full on to her, making her appear to be in a halo of silver light.

“Father let’s go for a walk, the island looks so beautiful in this moonlight, and it will be a fitting end to this wonderful evening.”

The two men readily agreed, and together they walked out into the cool air and down the hill towards the glow of the few small fires. Small groups of people sat around the fires talking, and smoking cheap cigarettes.  The fires gave these people light and warmth, providing a centre to gather round and exchange experiences and thoughts over. ?he faces were twisted in to grotesque masks by the fires flickering, and the laughs and conversation seemed far away and strangely quiet.

The trio walked slowly among the fires, exchanging talk with the circles of faces, and warming themselves against the night air.

The whole scene looked like a large gypsy encampment, or maybe a robbers den, with the dark faces, now red in the fires glow, looking strong and primitive. The women sat with the men and gossiped with equal fervency. But settled over all was a dreamy state of despondency and stupor. These people were different; the night could not hide it. The tone of the voices, the short bursts of laughter, the expressions and the eyes, all told of a feeling of despair and the tones of outcasts.

The three friends walked on past the fires until they reached the beach. The light of the moon lent ant air of soft quietness to the scene. The hills rose dark and mysterious behind them, making the town appear to be rising up on the head of a thundercloud.

Occasionally a splash would break the silence, as a fish tried to transcend its world. The silence was catching, and no one spoke until the doctor finally suggested that it was time to return home. They walked back along the beach, then up through the town past the dying fires and wished the stragglers good night. Then in turn did the same, and departed to their dreams.

The doctor’s work proceeded with encouraging results. His patients grew more and more into his confidence with the passage of each day. No one had actually been cured yet, but the results of the treatment showed that it would only be a matter of time. Helen had been accepted by the islanders also. They had taken to her quickly; a few even came to her for advice. The islands warm climate and sea air had given her a golden tan; she looked like a nut brown maiden fresh from the happiness of paradise.

She often went for walks with Antonio. They were very happy in each others company and had reached a state a little beyond that of just friendship.

 

Antonio was under the doctor’s care and was making very fine progress, but he was still very sensitive about his illness, and would not talk about it to Helen. Two months had passed since Helens first walk with Antonio to the beach, and at last, on a beautiful morning after a thunderstorm he agreed to keep his promise and show Helen his collection of paintings.

“Oh good, Antonio, I have been wondering when you would keep your promise, but I didn’t like to hurry you.”

From the doctors house they walked towards the outskirts on the east of the town.

“Helen I hope you don’t expect anything wonderful of my pictures. I paint for pleasure not for profit. Father Peter has seen my work and likes some of them. He even had me paint some Madonnas and Bible scenes for the church. You may have seen them and not realised that they are mine.”

“Antonio” she interrupted, “what do you like to paint most of all, scenes from history, people, and places; what?”

He thought a moment, then with gestures to help, he said, “I like to paint the island and its people. I like to walk around the town to watch the people talking or cooking. At night I often sit at the fires with them to catch their feelings and expressions. Then I go home and paint them. I do most of my work from memory. Sometimes I have a child or a girl to model for me, but not often. I also paint different views of the island. The town is so old that it provides me with many pictures and scenes; but I must tell you, I have a surprise for you at the house.”

Helen looked delightfully intrigued and said, “Oh, how wonderful. I shan’t ask you what it is because I love surprises.”

They had come to the outskirts of town, and there was just one more small house before the wild countryside began.

“Look Helen there’s my house.”

“What a quaint little house,” she said, “But do you live here all by yourself?”

“Yes all by myself, except for a small oat that visits me sometimes. But do you like the house?”

Helen stopped to look at it thoroughly. It was a small bungalow with probably three rooms in all. It didn’t look lonely here by itself outside the town; instead it seemed to commune with nature and gave a feeling of ruggedness. It was the same sort of feeling that one gets on seeing a lonely storm twisted tree on top of a hill.

Helen turned and looked at Antonio, who was obviously pleased with his home.

“I have wondered where you lived since I first met you,” she said, “but now I’ve seen your house I don’t know what to think! It’s a very nice little house, but your living all alone like a hermit. But come on Antonio, let’s see inside.”

He laughed as he followed her to the house. “I am not in the least like a hermit; why its only five minute walk to the centre of the town.”

Inside the house everything was clean and tidy. He had made sure of that by going over it in readiness for her visit. The first room was a kitchen cum dining room. A few pots and pans were hung neatly over the fireplace along with the inevitable garlic and diverse flavourings.

The only furniture was a small table and two chairs; but it looked homely. The next room was evidently his den. I lot of books lined an improvised shelf on one wall, and an old record player and five very old records were in a corner on the floor. The only furniture was a bed. This was covered with a large thick cloth and made it look like a couch. Helen was impressed with the comfort, even though it was primitive.

“No wonder you’re not lonely here, it’s quite pleasant. But where did you get the books and the gramophone?”

Antonio picked a book off the shelf and quickly glanced through it. “I had the man on the supply boat bring them over from the mainland. I always let anybody who can read borrow them, and people often borrow the gramophone as well.”

Antonio started winding up the antique instrument.

“But Antonio where are your paintings, and the surprise?”

He looked up from his winding. “They are in the other room, I will show you now.” He put a record on the machine and a voice fought its way through the scratches and sang your tiny hand is frozen in Italian.

Antonio led the way into the room which he used as a studio. There was no furniture except a chair and an easel with a covered painting on it.  On the walls and standing on the floor were many pictures, probably twenty five or more.

Antonio looked proud, and coloured a little as he said; NOW I will show you the surprise.” But as he finished the last word the gramophone in the other room stuck and began playing the same phrase over and over again.  Antonio looked perplexed but ran out and switched it off. Helen laughed out loud, Antonio did too when he returned to the room.

“Antonio, I am sure you did that on purpose to delay the surprise.”

“No,” he said still smiling, “I will show you now.” And he walked over to the covered painting on the easel and took off the cloth. “This is for you.”

Helen stepped forward and examined the painting. “Antonio, this is wonderful; a young girl dancing on the beach; but she’s wearing a frock like mine? Antonio. It’s me!!”

She flushed with happiness and quickly hugged him before he could protest.

He was evidently pleased at this reception to his painting, but was much embarrassed at her closeness during the hug. Even during this happiness a feeling of uncleanness swept over him leaving him empty inside.

Helen examined all his other paintings one by one, but the girl on the beach was the one that had captured her. Meanwhile Antonio managed to conquer his feeling of emptiness.

“Antonio, your paintings are more pleasing than I expected of them; and this surprise, it is truly the best I have ever had. What can we do to celebrate?”

“Seeing that I have kept one promise,” he said, “by bringing you here to see my paintings, I will keep the other and take you to the most beautiful spot on the island. Come on we’ll go immediately.”

Leaving the painting where it was on the easel, they left the house and re-entered the town. The followed him gaily through the streets talking and laughing.

“Antonio,” she said, “is it far?”

He looked at her light and energetic step. “No, you will walk it easily and we shall be back in time for lunch.”

On reaching the centre of the town they turned and went straight up the hillside.

On through the town they walked, past the church and past the limit of the town, up and up they climbed. Helen was filled with a new joy of living and a flush of happiness. She couldn’t keep her eyes off Antonio, every breeze lifted his black wavy hair, and his eyes were happy. The noticed it all and felt uplifted in a strange way that she could not understand. Her smile and strong supple movements uplifted him too, but he understood and was a little frightened.

Antonio, tell me about yourself. What did you do, and where did you live? Tell me all about  yourself.”

“I will tell you little whirlwind, but walk slowly, my legs are not as strong as they might be.”

She laughed musically and made as if to run up the hillside, but seeing his look of apprehension slowed to his pace.

“There is not a lot to tell you. I was born in Rome. My parents are what I suppose you would call rich and I was well cared for. I have two brothers and one sister. We were all educated to the dictates of a fashionable society; everything we learnt or did was done so because it was what was dictated right by society. To listen to the dictates of ones own heart was unheard of in my family. I was taught that the emotions should not be trusted, and that love was only a passing whim. At college I was being taught the affairs of business, but I preferred art and rebelled against the reason and misleading logic of business. M4 parents said I would be a beggar if I relied on my earnings as an artist, and it is not fashionable to be a beggar.

“But then this happened. I don’t know how I caught it, does anyone? Of course it is not fashionable to be a leper either. My parents told me I had to leave home. They didn’t actually tell me straight out that I must go, but they made it obvious in other ways. They were frightened that the family reputation might be ruined if the gossips got hold of this ripe piece of news. I chose this island because it is a long way away and they will not visit me. I have been here for just about a year now.

His face had coloured a little as he had begun his story, and now was tense as in a rage. It hurt him very deep to tell Helen his story, but he couldn’t stop.

“Sometimes they send me money, but I give it to Father Peter. What good is money when there is no love or affection? My God, how I want their love!!”

Helens eyes dulled with tears, but they fell unnoticed, and they walked in silence to the top of the hill.

From where they stood the whole island lay beneath them. The island was shaped like an open semicircle stretching from East to West with the town on the South and on the inside of the half circle. They could plainly see it below them, and felt that by stretching out an arm it could be touched.  A few people could be seen walking about the town, and they lent an air of reality to what otherwise looked like a backcloth for a stage setting.

A shadow of a cloud moved lazily across the sea like a dark shoal of fish, then came ashore and climbed the hill towards them. Helen walked over and surveyed the North side of the island. It was bare of houses and people but had a few groves of trees which had clustered together for companionship. The yellow red land sloped slowly away from the hills summit, and at its limit was bounded by a band of silver which was the beach. This divided the land from the limitless blue mysteries of the sea.

Helen looked at the scene as a child does a Christmas tree, picking out one beautiful thing after another. Then, to share her joy, she returned to Antonio. He was seated nearby in the shade of a rock deep in private thought. the sat down next to him in the shade of the great stone, she felt intuitively that he was still thinking about his past life and his reason for being on the island.

“Antonio,” she said to attract his attention, “You were right, it is wonderful up here. I could believe that we we’re the only ones on the island if it were not for the town there below us.

He looked down at the town but did not speak.

Have you ever been down to the other side of the island?”

At last he looked up at her, but his expression did not change and he quickly looked down again.

Yes I have been down there a few times to paint some landscapes. It is very quiet and uninhabited, but I paint well and do not feel alone.  However I can’t go there often because of the distance. To have time to paint I usually take little food and sleep there for the night.

Since she had sat down next to him she had not looked away from his face. His illness had not affected it, and did not mar its strength or masculine grace; nor were the passions boiling underneath kept entirely from its surface. She noticed his uneasiness and wondered what the cause was. She did not realise that even as he spoke a feeling of uncleanness, and the thoughts of his leprosy surged into an overpowering urge. He wanted to run away and be alone with his affliction. Her very nearness made it stronger. He knew he loved her, and was repulsed by his feeling of uncleanness.

She sensed his inner conflict, knelt down near him and took his hand. He snatched it away as if burnt, and stood up quickly. His emotions overcame him and he lapsed into his mother tongue, as if he wanted to speak but didn’t want her to understand; but she did.”

Helen, how can I begin to explain to you; you are good, beautiful and clean. I am an artist. I can see and recognise these things, and I can see them in you, who can help loving you, and I must tell you that I love you, but I hate myself, I hate myself, loath myself because I am a leper. When you touch me I feel like a toad. But how can I explain what I feel. My own mind tells me I am not worthy of you, I’m just a leper and my conscience won’t let you touch me or come near me. My God, I can’t stand it any longer Helen, I must go, I must.

Before she could answer he turned and walked as quickly as he could down the hill. Helen remained kneeling crying softly to herself, and watched him slowly descend the hillside, and then disappear into the town.

She remained there a while longer, and then rose, brushed the dust thoughtfully from her frock, and made her way, still very quietly crying, down the hill.

On reaching the town she entered the small church. Father Peter was busying himself about the place and saw her enter. His smile immediately broadened.

“Ah, Miss Helen, to what do I owe this visit.” Without waiting for an answer he walked over and took her arm. “Why my child, you’ve tears in your eyes; now come with me and explain.”

He led her into his small kitchen behind the church and gave her a glass of wine. “Now child, why these tears on such a fine day as this?”

She told him the whole story without omitting anything. He sat looking at her for a long time, and then said.

“He is a fine young man, a good boy; do you love him?”

“Yes, yes Father Peter, very much. How else could he have hurt me so much by what he said on the hill?”

Father Peter smiled again. “If this is true child, then everything will be well with you. “True love will always be fulfilled if its power is not obstructed with reasoning and our brains poor finite thoughts. But you must pray to God that your father’s work may be successful. Don’t try to see Antonio for a few days because he is sensitive, and it will hurt him. But he will come to see me himself soon to tell me what you have just told me, so be happy my child that you have such a fine young man to love.”

Her tears were gone and she kissed the good priest on the cheek.

“God be with you my child, God be with you.

 

*********************************************

Antonio was not long in going to see Father Peter; in fact it was the very next morning. His eyes were red and hid face unshaven, he had obviously not slept that night.

Father Peter got up at his usual time of 6:30, walked down from his bedroom to the kitchen and found Antonio waiting for him there.

“Antonio, what in all Gods mercies are you doing here so early.”

Antonio stood up and looked a little guilty. “Father you must forgive me for coming here like this so early in the morning but I am confused and unhappy.”

The priest then remembered Helens visit the previous day and nodded understandingly. “Well son speak out and share your burden.”

Antonio sat down and closed his eyes for a moment. “Father you have probably noticed that Helen and I have been seeing a lot of each other since she came to the island. Well I can’t help it, I love her. I just couldn’t stop myself falling in love with her.”

The priest interrupted him. “But son, that’s perfectly natural, hundreds and thousands of young couples are doing the same thing all the time.”

Antonio stood and turned his back on the priest so he shouldn’t have to look him in the face, and in a tense voice he said, “Oh my God, why did I have to be different from all those others? Don’t you see Father, I am a leper. I can’t let that girl love me because I will hurt her in the same way as I am hurting myself.”

Father Peter turned Antonio round to face him. “Son you have already hurt her; yes, hurt her more than you have hurt yourself. She can’t understand why you ran away from her yesterday. She thinks it’s something she’s said or done.”

Antonio’s eyes burnt hard and he trembled a little.

“So she told you what happened on the hill…. Father I’m unworthy of her. Doesn’t she realise that I am a leper, that I am unclean? Every time I go near her I burn up with shame. I’m unclean and no good.

Father Peter caught Antonio’s shoulders in his large hands and shook him. “You young fool, don’t you know that that girl realises you’ve got leprosy and loves you despite it. She knows what she’s doing more than you do. She’s not in love with your body, she loves you; the you that paints, the you who talks to her and amuses her, that’s who she loves.”

Father Peter stopped and looked long and earnestly at Antonio. His words had taken Antonio by surprise, all he could say was, “But Father I’m a leper, my own family turned away from me. They turned away, but you said she loves me despite this; I can’t understand. My own mother turned me away, and yet this innocent girl offers me her love?”

Father Peter was calm again and sat Antonio down in a chair. “Maybe you can’t understand it all at the moment, but it’s true.

“When she was here I told her you would go to see her in a little while. Think about what I have said, and go and see her soon.”

Shortly afterwards Antonio left the priests house and walked back home more confused than ever. Once indoors he sat on his bed thinking and worrying, worrying and thinking until he fell asleep from exhaustion.  When he woke some hours later he felt relieved of a great burden. He had decided, just before sleep claimed him to go and see Helen. He knew he must tell her how he felt, and do so without running away.   He tidied himself up, shaved and had a bite to eat. Then taking his painting of the girl on the beach, he set off in a tremendously determined mood.

On reaching her house he paused at a window. Helen was in the room helping the young cook to clear up what must have been the remains of the lunch. Antonio stood watching them and felt his courage quickly leave him. However he didn’t have time to leave because Cristella spotted him.

“Look Miss Helen there’s signor Venzal at the window.

Helen was at the window before she had finished the sentence. “Antonio. I thought you would never come, but Father Peter said you would, so I was patient. Wait there I will come out to you.”

He walked towards the door to meet her wondering how he was going to broach the subject he had come to discuss.

Helen stepped out of the door, then seeing him she felt suddenly shy, but conquered it and took his hand. This time he did not snatch it away but gently squeezed hers, and wondered at the tingling shock her touch gave him

She noticed the painting he held in his other hand. “Is that my painting you have there Antonio?”

“Yes,” he said, “I brought it along as an excuse to see you, but I really came to talk about what happened on the hill. She took the picture and looked at it. “You are forgiven Antonio; but before we talk I must hang this picture where father can see it.”

They went into the house and he was glad of the delay. Helen hung the painting in a place of honour over the mantelpiece in the dinning room. Cristella was exuberant and remarked on what a good man Miss Helen had found.

The job was soon done and they went out into the garden and sat on a small bench in the shade of a tree. Neither of them spoke for a while. Then Antonio could withhold no longer.

“Helen, I came here today because Father Peter said I should.” He paused, and then added, “No that’s not quite true, I came because I couldn’t stay away. Father Peter said that you loved me and that I had hurt you; but you don’t know how I felt or how confused I was yesterday.”

Helen sat quietly and listened; her blue eyes searching his face. He stood up, as if what he had to say could not be said sitting.

“You know I am a leper and yet you can love me. This means a lot to me, even my own relations could show no love for me.”

He paused and sat down again, his dark hair hung over his forehead as he looked down at the ground. “I told you how I felt about you while we were on the hill. Helen, I will tell you again. I love you more than I ever loved anybody before.”

As he said this his dark eyes looked straight into hers full and earnest; then he resumed his former downward gaze. “But I don’t feel worthy of you.”

Helen took his hand again. “You have told me all this, now you must give me a chance to speak. Yesterday you left me on the hill before I had a chance to speak to you. Father Peter told you that I love you.  I do not know what other people mean when they say that the love one another, but when I am with you I feel light and happy; I am filled with energy. At night before I go to sleep I think of you, then I dream of you, and when I wake I am still thinking of you. I am obsessed, and always want to be with you. That is how I love you Antonio.”

He sat listening wide eyed and breathing deeply. She moved suddenly closer to him and kissed him full on the mouth. A great red star of warmth burst in his head at the touch of her lips. His native blood asserted itself at the warmth and feminine softness of her body. His inhibitions were forgotten; he kissed her eyes and throat and lips, and felt her heart beating distantly in the softness of her breast.

His chest felt empty and he sat back dazed. Helen looked at him, smiled, and said, “There, that’s what I think of your leprosy. It’s just like measles only harder to cure. There’s nothing unclean about it. You see, father will make you well soon.”

He smiled and put his arm round her waist. A great weight had gone; he no longer felt unclean, just happy.  Soon I shall be well, that will be my great day.”

 

**************************************

From that day onwards the two were inseparable. If one was seen walking in the town, the other was surely not far behind. Their love was the main topic of the fireside group’s conversation. The islanders blessed the couple in their prayers. To these Mediterranean people love is an adventure, and they followed this ones progress as if it was their own. Helens father approved her choice, and his work went on.

The months passed by, and at last the island great day arrived. The doctor officially declared the first cure; it was one of the young girls who helped him at the hospital. The whole island rejoiced, the church bells were rung frequently throughout the day, people sang in the streets, and the groups round the fires didn’t break up, until the following dawn. After this the cures were quite frequent and the cured were symbols of hope for those still with the disease.

Antonio attended the hospital regularly for treatment and progress checks. On one such morning doctor Brooks thoroughly examined him, then sat down and wrote some notes in his case history.

“How do you feel now son?”

Antonio finished putting his shirt on before he answered. “I feel fine; strong and healthy. How much longer do I carry on with the treatment doctor Brooks?”

The doctor put down his notes and looked up at Antonio his blue eyes sparkling. “Son, we’re not giving you any more treatment; Antonio my boy, your cured.”

Antonio sat down quickly in the nearest chair, closed his eves and let out a big sigh. Then very quietly as if in a dream he said, “Doctor I thank you with all my heart. I have been waiting and praying for this day a long, long time. Now all I can say is thank you, and may God bless you and your work.”

He quickly left the hospital in search of Helen. As he walked towards her house the first shock had worn off and was t followed by a state of great happiness. By the time he reached the house he was singing and laughing fit to burst; but as he entered the garden he put on a mock expression of seriousness.

He looked in at the window. “Come on out Helen, I want to talk to you.”

She came gaily out into the garden and took his arm. “What’s all this, such a serious face, and you said you wanted to talk to me.”

He led her out of the garden and started walking up the hill. “Yes my little Helen I have something to tell you, but first we must walk a little way.

And walk they did, right up to the top of the hill, then over the top and down the other side. On they walked arm in arm down the hill. There was no footpath; they just followed their feet through the small groups of trees. Down, down they went, with the sun chasing them over the dusty earth.

At last, out of breath and laughing they reached the beach. They both flopped down side by side in the warm dry sand. After she had regained her breath, Helen turned on her side and looked at Antonio lying there with his eyes closed, and then stretched her arm and pushed him.

“Wake up sleepy and tell me why you were looking so serious; or was that just an excuse to bring me all the way here.”

He sat up and brushed the sand from his hair. “Something has happened that I could write a book about, or paint a picture; but I will tell you in three words – I am cured.”

Her eyes opened to the size of saucers, and she sat up quickly. “Antonio, you said you’re cured. You’re cured.”

He laughed at her amazement, but not for long because she caught him and pulled him down onto the sand. She kissed him and hugged him so hard he cried out for mercy. “Helen you are like a bear, you will crush me.”

She kissed him again and they lay in the sand a long time looking at each other. At last he said very quietly so she had to lean forward to hear.

“Helen will you marry me?”

She breathed out quickly, and for a while was speechless. Then still full of fun she pushed him down in the sand. If you want to marry me you must catch me.” She sprang up, and with the speed of a hunted gazelle ran off along the beach.

He was after her in a flash, but even with his new found health he was no match for her speed.

He was just about to shout out her own words and make her chase him when she tripped in the soft sand and he caught up with her.  Quickly he knelt down behind her and held her down by her arms.

“Well my little run away whirlwind, you nearly ran away from a husband.”

“I give up great master,” she said laughing. “I will marry you.”

He bent over and kissed her, then kissed her ear and whis­pered, ”I love you.” Then kissed her other ear, “I adore you, Helen my future wife.”

He stood up and lifted her up with him. They stood there together in a close embrace, and her firm rounded body gave him strength; he was a leper no more.

 

********************************

Another great day for the island came; the day of their marriage. Literally everyone on the island was either in or outside the church.

Helen was dressed in a beautiful flowing white dress, the likes of which had never been seen on the island before.

As the happy couple walked out from the church the gathered crowd cheered until they were hoarse. The women cried and even Father Peter shed a tear or two, but they were offset by his great smile.

“My children,” he said, “Let God lead your lives; go out and live happily.” And they did; they lived happily ever afterwards… How do I know?  Well – I’m Antonio

 

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