The Lantern That Was Magic
A love story by the writer whose sketches of an Ottawa boyhood, "The Happy Time," won wide acclaim
SUDDENLY, one day when the world is a little crazy with springtime, and the puddles shine, and the melting snow winks endlessly, there comes into the heart of a boy the strong desire to kiss someone who is neither an aunt, a cousin, nor a mother.
This urge, arriving, let us say, at the spring of the twelfth year, when the first chartreuse buds defy the evening chill, has sometimes no object except in a dream.
Some other time the spring-swept youth has in mind a certain lovely girl.
She is usually, as she was in my case, a girl with whom the youth has played in tomboy fashion for several years, with mingled joy and despair. Now she becomes, abruptly, something besides a companion and foil. She becomes a desirable creature, the color of whose eyes and the softness of whose skin are immediately strangely important.
The girl, then, whom I wanted to kiss that remembered spring, was Sally. I can offer no plausible explanation. Sally, on the other hand, did not want to kiss me. For this I have no explanation, either, unless it was the snide persuasion of my rival, Egbert, an alien from the States, corrupting the very air of my beloved Canada with his weird nasal sounds.
“Just anybody can’t kiss me,” Sally had said. “A hero or an explorer or someone special like . .
maybe . . .”
“Egbert, I suppose, is a hero? Egbert of the horse’s face, the horse’s laugh . . . and the words that rumble out through his large nose?”
“Egbert is from New York. There they are all heroes.”
You may be certain I gave the matter considerable thought, aiming for some sort of distinction that would not cause me to risk any broken bones.
I was not, I admit, the bravest boy in the world, so I strolled after school, when the sun was golden, and warmed my thoughts. I believed if I walked enough places I would someday be struck with an idea how to win my lady fair and not jeopardize my neck.
And so I was. As I passed the Rae Department Store one afternoon I saw a most marvellous instrument in the window. It was a small black metal box with an opening at the back and a large lens in the front. At the back one inserted a colored postcard which thereupon became magnified greatly upon the wall. At the moment, the card showed a lovely street in Paris. Down this fine boulevard there strolled many beautiful women and handsome men. Believe me, it was almost real . . . the trees, the horses, the buildings . . .
Why not ask papa to buy me this object, which the sign called a
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magic lantern, for my birthday, which would be soon? How much better than some new long black lisle stockings, or some blouses with foolish strings, or more suits with short pants!
With the magic lantern mine I could give a party and invite Sally. After the great show 1 would escort her home and she would, of course, permit me to kiss her good night because of the wonders 1 had shown her.
I took one last look at the colorful window, and then I went home as fast as possible, arriving panting.
After a long glass of cold water and a moment’s rest on the divan, I sought Papa. He was in his room, sipping wine and reading La Presse.
“Papa,” I began, brushing back th« wet locks from my sweating brow, “I wish to make a request.”
“We had frogs legs last week,” Papa said, without looking away from the paper.
“No. It is not frogs legs. Papa, soon is my birthday.”
“Ah, so it is. You are getting old, Bibi. Do the years weigh on you? Any creakings in the joints? Any falling hair?”
“No, Papa. I do not mind birthdays. I wish to be 'soon a man. I will be so happy when I am a man.”
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“And all the men would be happy to be boys. 11 is better to be a boy, 11 is to be filled with wonder and magic.” The word excited me.
“That is what men think,” I countered, “but the life of a boy does not have enough magic.” I paused dramatically. “That is why,” 1 continued, “1 wish a magic lantern.”
Papa put down his newspaper. “You wish perhaps to enter the theatrical business?”
“In a small way only,” I pleaded. “For a few friends maybe.”
“What is the cost of such an instrument?”
“Twelve dollars,” I replied, casually. Papa blinked his eyes. “To save $12 from 25 cents a week will take some time.”
I shook my head. “No, Papa. It is for my birthday 1 wish it. A present.” Papa looked vaguely out the window for a moment. Then he said solemnly: “Your Maman was thinking of something more . . . uh . . . useful. Some new shoes, perhaps. Or a box in which to put books and games.”
“She will not change her mind, maybe?” I asked anxiously.
Papa smiled. “Perhaps if we can explain to her the beauty and value of this instrument. Remember, however, she is a Scot and you must be very winning.”
I laughed and ran to the kitchen, where I found Maman ironing a redchecken d tablecloth.
“Go and wash your hands and face,” she said automatically.
“I did. Maman ... in this world there are many things of value . . . money, food, clothes, n’est-ce pas?” Maman looked at me in some surprise. “What do you mean?”
“But is it enough to have in the world only food, clothes and money? Do we not need, also, something pretty?”
“What do you want me to buy you now?” Maman said distinctly and slowly.
“Nothing, my dear Maman. Nothing, c’est-à-dire, for me alone. It is for you too. For all of us. Something very, very beautiful.”
Maman turned up the iron on a stand, removed the tablecloth from the board, folded it carefully and put it on a chair.
“What is it you want?” she said then. “A magic lantern. In Rae’s I saw one. It shows on the screen anything bright and colored . . . postcards . . . pictures ... all made into a much larger size. If we wish to be in Paris, strolling the boulevard, we need only a postcard of the Champs Elysées. If we desire to walk through the streets of New York, we need only a postcard of Times Square. If we wish an ocean voyage, we need—”
“What is the price of this machine?” “Twelve dollars,” I said. “But I can give parties and charge 10 cents and— ” “Twelve dollars is too much.”
“But, Maman, to see the world ... to look at beautiful women and handsome men ... to see giant flowers and greatly enlarged birds . . .”
Maman sighed. She looked over at the door, and there stood Papa, smiling.
“Twelve dollars is not so much to pay for most of the beauty in the world,” Papa suggested.
“He needs a new suit,” Maman countered. “Of course I could cut down that blue one of yours.”
Papa gulped, but he did not protest. “The blue one is a fine one, but one must admit it has seen happier days. By all means cut it down if it will bring the boy some magic.”
So the magic lantern came a few days before my birthday. Every
spare hour I spent showing myself scenes from a large box of picture postcards 1 had collected.
1 walked the streets of Paris with the great and the lowly. 1 strolled New York with murderers and millionaires. 1 sailed the seas, and I climbed snowcrowned mountains. I visited jungles and spied on tigers and orchids, and I rode great roaring trains. It was all bright and wonderful and, indeed, magic.
I could scarcely wait until my birthday to show the machine to my friends and especially to Sally. How could she resist me after such a glimpse of beauty? She would see instantly that Egbert was a dull donkey, lacking in any sense of poetry or romance.
The great night arrived and I, dressed in my shining best, displayed my magic lantern to Sally and Egbert and some other friends. To my mind it was a triumphant show. It began with a view of our own splendid Parliament Buildings and went on through France and Germany and Africa and America and finally ended with a colorful card bearing the Union Jack.
When it was all finished the lights were turned up and we had ice cream and cake served by Maman. I felt very happy. I was the producer of this great spectacle, and surely Mile. Sally must be secretly yearning for my private company.
1 was sure of it when she said she would gladly permit me to accompany her home. Egbert whispered that she did so because he had no umbrella and it was raining, but I naturally refused to believe such nonsense.
Sally and I walked briskly to her house through mud puddles and rain. Mostly we walked in silence. Now and then I remarked:
“Very wet, no?”
“Very,” Sally agreed.
It was not that I did not feel equal to the situation. It was merely that I was so overcome at the thought of kissing Sally, of feeling my arms around her, of seeing the brightness in her eyes, that I could not keep my heart from bobbing up into my throat.
Still, in spite of my remark about the weather, it was not raining for me. The stars in my heart shone with diamond brightness and the moon sang.
At length we reached Sally’s house. We paused in the walk and looked at each other. Sally smiled faintly.
“Thank you very much,” she said. My heart bounded like a tennis ball. I held the umbrella closer to her.
“Uh ...” I began.
“What? My! It’s raining much harder now. Hadn’t you better run along?”
I edged closer. “Uh . . .”
“You liked the lantern of magic?”
“Yes. A little.”
“Only a little?” I said sadly. “It was for you I got it.”
Sally flickered her long lashes and looked away. Her face was bright and shining, wet with rain.
“I liked it all right,” she said.
“You recall the new suit 1 was to get? Well, instead I got the lantern. I will wear now a suit of Papa’s.”
Sally smiled without mirth.
“You did? IJmmmn. And the way you kept telling me about the suit. 1 mean, I thought we could go out some places, me in a new dress, you in new long pants.”
“They would not be long anyway, I guess.”
“They might have been,” Sally said a little angrily. “Instead, you picked out the silly old magic lantern. I bet that’s what you really wanted. You didn’t care what I wanted.”
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The stars retired. The moon ceased to sing. My heart no longer hounded. Magic lantern? The magic was gone. Or almost.
A sharp pain came to the centre of my stomach and my head ached with sad ness.
I tried with one arm to hold Sally closer, and I bent eagerly to kiss her and wipe out my pain. Alas, the umbrella banged against her forehead, knocking her hat onto the ground in the rain. We bumped noses as we bent to pick it up.
“I think I had better go in,” she said coldly. She picked up the hat and ran swiftly into the house.
SO THE magic lantern, which had lost its magic, was put away with the old lamp shades and the schoolbooks of other years and the clothes which were worn no longer and the suitcases and trunks for travelling on some far-off day.
It was forgotten, that lantern, on the screen of my mind, and the years were like the swift, colored slides had been, though nowhere near as bright and exciting.
In time I finished college, having seen less and less of Sally in the years between. I prepared now to go to the States to take a position in a bank in New York.
I had, of course, not ceased to care for Sally. I had resigned myself, merely, to whatever strange processes in the universe conspire to cover with icy rain the soft dreaming garden of youthful springtime.
As with the lantern, the magic had gone, the colors faded, the focus blurred. The scene, one might say, had changed.
I was at least grateful to be finished school and happy in a melancholy manner that I was able to support myself. I was, in short, glad to be grownup, healthy and fairly well-educated.
It would be foolish to affirm that this jvas enough. There was something missing.
These thoughts were even sharper in my mind than usual, for I had written Sally a brief, sentimental, friendly note, telling her I was going and saying a gentle, reluctant adieu. I had not suggested that she come and say good-by or that she invite me for a farewell chat. In consequence I was left with merely a vague, faintly warm stirring of hope in my heart ... as if through the shining, melting snow of very late spring the first shoot of a violet danced its small determined way, an almost laughable tiny promise.
It was then I came across the lantern, dusty and lorn. I smiled at the black object there in the ancient debris. Since it had been of little use I picked it up and rubbed it shiny with a cloth, thinking to sell it and add to my slim hank account.
1 turned around at the sound of some soft sudden footsteps
It was Sally at the doorway of tho cellar, peeking into the darkness from the light of the yellow-green spring outside.
She came in, smiling as the sunshine.
“So, you are going to New York? How nice! Still, it seems so far. Will you find violets there? And rainbows and boulevards and beautiful women and great snow-capped mountains?”
She was looking at the lantern and so was I. I was about to remind her of the days when I had bought it and of the hope that had gone with the purchase. I almost explained to her that it was my deep desire for her soft warm youthful kiss that had caused me to buy the lantern—the lantern that had brought me, mockingly, bright vistas of far-off dream places, but no caress. Then I changed my mind, for a thought came to me as quietly and swiftly as a small golden fish gliding through deep waters.
“Would you like to see the lantern work again? It has not been shown since the days when you said you wished I had a new suit with long pants. I now have the suit, by the way.”
Sally laughed and blushed a little. Then she looked very solemn, like a small bird on a grey day.
“I’d love to,” she replied quietly.
So once again we walked the shining streets of Paris and sailed the dark blue tossing seas and climbed the highest snow-capped mountains.
Her hand reached for mine and I held it, warm and soft, and thus it was, hand-in-hand, that we spied on bright tigers and rare orchids and splendid colored birds. It was all gleaming and wonderful and, indeed, magic.
When I turned on the lights of reality again there were small tears in the eyes of Sally, like the gentle first drops of a springtime shower.
“I’m sorry,” she said gently.
“About what?” I asked kindly.
“About the years that have gone so swiftly between us.”
I smiled. “All of us are sorry about the years that pass, except, of course, the very young, who are immortal. Yet, for us, there is still much time to laugh and sing and hunt tigers and orchids and birds of paradise. Or at least to hunt some shining golden thing not yet with a name.”
Sally looked at me, slightly puzzled.
“Wait. Something strange has happened. You . . . you left out some of the pictures.”
“The ones of New York?”
Her face was raised toward mine, and I kissed her as gently as the tears that had flowed down her soft cheeks, and then I kissed her again as hard as my dreams had been. “The New York pictures we do not need,” I said afterward.
“And why not?” she asked, her eyes expecting sadness.
“Because the wonders of New York we will see without the aid of the lantern. We will have our own magic!”