Monday, July 31, 2006

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Fall of Lord Barrymore”

We’re running a little late with this week’s story, but to make up for it, we’ve chosen a Name. That’s right, that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This story doesn’t seem to be online anywhere; not even Gutenberg has it. Huzzah for us! In keeping with our (what the hell am I being editorial for? it’s only me here) desire to avoid continuing characters, this is not a Sherlock Holmes story, or even a mystery or science fiction one. It’s a Regency trifle, though the experienced Doyle fan will note the tells. It’s from the 1918 Danger! and Other Stories.

There are few social historians of those days who have not told of the long and fierce struggle between those two famous bucks, Sir Charles Tregellis and Lord Barrymore, for the Lordship of the Kingdom of St. James, a struggle which divided the whole of fashionable London into two opposing camps. It has been chronicled also how the peer retired suddenly and the commoner resumed his great career without a rival. Only here, however, one can read the real and remarkable reason for this sudden eclipse of a star.

It was one morning in the days of this famous struggle that Sir Charles Tregellis was performing his very complicated toilet, and Ambrose, his valet, was helping him to attain that pitch of perfection which had long gained him the reputation of being the best-dressed man in town. Suddenly Sir Charles paused, his coup d’archet half executed, the final beauty of his neck-cloth half achieved, while he listened with surprise and indignation upon his large, comely, fresh-complexioned face. Below, the decorous hum of Jermyn Street had been broken by the sharp, staccato metallic beating of a door-knocker.

“I begin to think that this uproar must be at our door,” said Sir Charles, as one who thinks aloud. “For five minutes it has come and gone; yet Perkins has his orders.”

At a gesture from his master Ambrose stepped out upon the balcony and craned his discreet head over it. From the street below came a voice, drawling but clear.

“You would oblige me vastly, fellow, if you would do me the favour to open this door,” said the voice.

“Who is it? What is it?” asked the scandalized Sir Charles, with his arrested elbow still pointing upward.

Ambrose had returned with as much surprise upon his dark face as the etiquette of his position would allow him to show.

“It is a young gentleman, Sir Charles.”

“A young gentleman? There is no one in London who is not aware that I do not show before midday. Do you know the person? Have you seen him before?”

“I have not seen him, sir, but he is very like someone I could name.”

“Like someone? Like whom?”

“With all respect, Sir Charles, I could for a moment have believed that it was yourself when I looked down. A smaller man, sir, and a youth; but the voice, the face, the bearing — — ”

“It must be that young cub Vereker, my brother’s ne’er-do-well,” muttered Sir Charles, continuing his toilet. “I have heard that there are points in which he resembles me. He wrote from Oxford that he would come, and I answered that I would not see him. Yet he ventures to insist. The fellow needs a lesson! Ambrose, ring for Perkins.”

A large footman entered with an outraged expression upon his face.

“I cannot have this uproar at the door, Perkins!”

“If you please, the young gentleman won’t go away, sir.”

“Won’t go away? It is your duty to see that he goes away. Have you not your orders? Didn’t you tell him that I am not seen before midday?”

“I said so, sir. He would have pushed his way in, for all I could say, so I slammed the door in his face.”

“Very right, Perkins.”

“But now, sir, he is making such a din that all the folk are at the windows. There is a crowd gathering in the street, sir.”

From below came the crack-crack-crack of the knocker, ever rising in insistence, with a chorus of laughter and encouraging comments from the spectators. Sir Charles flushed with anger. There must be some limit to such impertinence.

“My clouded amber cane is in the corner,” he said. “Take it with you, Perkins. I give you a free hand. A stripe or two may bring the young rascal to reason.”

The large Perkins smiled and departed. The door was heard to open below and the knocker was at rest. A few moments later there followed a prolonged howl and a noise as of a beaten carpet. Sir Charles listened with a smile which gradually faded from his good-humoured face.

“The fellow must not overdo it,” he muttered. “I would not do the lad an injury, whatever his deserts may be. Ambrose, run out on the balcony and call him off. This has gone far enough.”

But before the valet could move there came the swift patter of agile feet upon the stairs, and a handsome youth, dressed in the height of fashion, was standing framed in the open doorway. The pose, the face, above all the curious, mischievous, dancing light in the large blue eyes, all spoke of the famous Tregellis blood. Even such was Sir Charles when, twenty years before, he had, by virtue of his spirit and audacity, in one short season taken a place in London from which Brummell himself had afterwards vainly struggled to depose him. The youth faced the angry features of his uncle with an air of debonair amusement, and he held towards him, upon his outstretched palms, the broken fragments of an amber cane.

“I much fear, sir,” said he, “that in correcting your fellow I have had the misfortune to injure what can only have been your property. I am vastly concerned that it should have occurred.”

Sir Charles stared with intolerant eyes at this impertinent apparition. The other looked back in a laughably parody of his senior’s manner. As Ambrose had remarked after his inspection from the balcony, the two were very alike, save that the younger was smaller, finer cut, and the more nervously alive of the two.

“You are my nephew, Vereker Tregellis?” asked Sir Charles.

“Yours to command, sir.”

“I hear bad reports of you from Oxford.”

“Yes, sir, I understand that the reports are bad.”

“Nothing could be worse.”

“So I have been told.”

“Why are you here, sir?”

“That I might see my famous uncle.”

“So you made a tumult in the street, forced his door, and beat his footman?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You had my letter?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You were told that I was not receiving?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I can remember no such exhibition of impertinence.”

The young man smiled and rubbed his hands in satisfaction.

“There is an impertinence which is redeemed by wit,” said Sir Charles, severely. “There is another which is the mere boorishness of the clodhopper. As you grow older and wiser you may discern the difference.”

“You are very right, sir,” said the young man, warmly. “The finer shades of impertinence are infinitely subtle, and only experience and the society of one who is a recognized master” — here he bowed to his uncle — “can enable one to excel.”

Sir Charles was notoriously touchy in temper for the first hour after his morning chocolate. He allowed himself to show it.

“I cannot congratulate my brother upon his son,” said he. “I had hoped for something more worthy of our tradition.”

“Perhaps sir, upon a longer acquaintance — — ”

“The chance is too small to justify the very irksome experience. I must ask you, sir, to bring to a close a visit which never should have been made.”

The young man smiled affably, but gave no sign of departure.

“May I ask, sir,” said he, in an easy conversational fashion, “whether you can recall Principal Munro, of my college?”

“No, sir, I cannot,” his uncle answered, shortly.

“Naturally you would not burden your memory to such an extent, but he still remembers you. In some conversation with him yesterday he did me the honour to say that I brought you back to his recollection by which he was pleased to call the mingled levity and obstinacy of my character. The levity seems to have already impressed you. I am now reduced to showing you the obstinacy.” He sat down in a chair near the door and folded his arms, still beaming pleasantly at his uncle.

“Oh, you won’t go?” asked Sir Charles, grimly.

“No, sir; I will stay.”

“Ambrose, step down and call a couple of chairmen.”

“I should not advise it, sir. They will be hurt.”

“I will put you out with my own hands.”

“That, sir, you can always do. As my uncle, I could scarce resist you. But, short of throwing me down the stair, I do not see how you can avoid giving me half an hour of your attention.”

Sir Charles smiled. He could not help it. There was so much that was reminiscent of his own arrogant and eventful youth in the bearing of this youngster. He was mollified, too, by the defiance of menials and quick submission to himself. He turned to the glass and signed to Ambrose to continue his duties.

“I must ask you to await the conclusion of my toilet,” said he. “Then we shall see how far you can justify such an intrusion.”

When the valet had at last left the room Sir Charles turned his attention once more to his scapegrace nephew, who had viewed the details of the famous buck’s toilet with the face of an acolyte assisting at a mystery.

“Now, sir,” said the older man, “speak, and speak to the point, for I can assure you that I have many more important matters which claim my attention. The Prince is waiting for me at the present instant at Carlton House. Be as brief as you can. What is it that you want?”

“A thousand pounds.”

“Really! Nothing more?” Sir Charles had turned acid again.

“Yes, sir; an introduction to Mr. Brinsley Sheridan, whom I know to be your friend.”

“And why to him?”

“Because I am told that he controls Drury Lane Theatre, and I have a fancy to be an actor. My friends assure me that I have a pretty talent that way.”

“I can see you clearly, sir, in Charles Surface, or any other part where a foppish insolence is essential. The less you acted, the better you would be. But it is absurd to suppose that I would help you to such a career. I could not justify it to your father. Return to Oxford at once, and continue your studies.”


“And pray, sir, what is the impediment?”

“I think I may have mentioned to you that I had an interview yesterday with the principal. He ended it by remarking that the authorities of the university could tolerate me no more.”

“Sent down?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And this is the fruit, no doubt, of a long series of rascalities.”

“Something of the sort, sir, I admit.”

In spite of himself, Sir Charles began once more to relax in his severity towards this handsome young scapegrace. His absolute frankness disarmed criticism. It was in a more gracious voice that the older man continued the conversation.

“Why do you want this large sum of money?” he asked.

“To pay my college debts before I go, sir.”

“Your father is not a rich man.”

“No, sir. I could not apply to him for that reason.”

“So you come to me, who am a stranger!”

“No, sir, no! You are my uncle, and, if I may say so, my ideal and my model.”

“You flatter me, my good Vereker. But if you think you can flatter me out of a thousand pounds, you mistake your man. I will give you no money.”

“Of course, sir, if you can’t — — ”

“I did not say I can’t. I say I won’t.”

“If you can, sir, I think you will.”

Sir Charles smiled, and flicked his sleeve with his lace handkerchief.

“I find you vastly entertaining,” said he. “Pray continue your conversation. Why do you think that I will give you so large a sum of money?”

“The reason that I think so,” continued the younger man, “is that I can do you a service which will seem to you worth a thousand pounds.”

Sir Charles raised his eyebrows in surprise.

“Is this blackmail?” he inquired.

Vereker Tregellis flushed. “Sir,” said he, with a pleasing sternness, “you surprise me. You should know the blood of which I come too well to suppose that I would attempt such a thing.”

“I am relieved to hear that there are limits to what you consider to be justifiable. I must confess that I had seen none in your conduct up to now. But you say that you can do me a service which will be worth a thousand pounds to me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And pray, sir, what may this service be?”

“To make Lord Barrymore the laughing-stock of this town.”

Sir Charles, in spite of himself, lost for an instant the absolute serenity of his self-control. He started, and his face expressed his surprise. By what devilish instinct did this raw under-graduate find the one chink in his armour? Deep in his heart, unacknowledged to anyone, there was the will to pay many a thousand pounds to the man who would bring ridicule upon this his most dangerous rival, who was challenging his supremacy in fashionable London.

“Did you come from Oxford with this precious project?” he asked, after a pause.

“No, sir. I chanced to see the man himself last night, and I conceived an ill-will to him, and would do him a mischief.”

“Where did you see him?”

“I spent the evening, sir, at the Vauxhall Gardens.”

“No doubt you would,” interpolated his uncle.

“My Lord Barrymore was there. He was attended by one who was dressed as a clergyman, but who was, I am told, none other than Hooper of Tinman, who acts as his bully and thrashes all who may offend him. Together they passed down the central path, insulting the women and browbeating the men. They actually hustled me. I was offended, sir, so much so that I nearly took the matter in hand then and there.”

“It is as well that you did not. The prizefighter would have beaten you.”

“Perhaps so, sir — and also, perhaps not.”

“Ah, you add pugilism to your elegant accomplishments?”

The young man laughed pleasantly.

“William Ball is the only professor of my Alma Mater who has ever had occasion to compliment me, sir. He is better known as the Oxford Pet. I think, with all modesty, that I could hold him for a dozen rounds. But last night I suffered the annoyance without protest, for since it is said that the same scene is enacted every evening, there is always time to act.”

“And how would you act, may I ask?”

“That, sir, I should prefer to keep to myself; but my aim, as I say, would be to make Lord Barrymore a laughing-stock to all London.”

Sir Charles cogitated for a moment.

“Pray, sir,” said he, “why did you imagine that any humiliation to Lord Barrymore would be pleasing to me?”

“Even in the provinces we know something of what passes in polite circles. Your antagonism to this man is to be found in every column of fashionable gossip. The town is divided between you. It is impossible that any public slight upon him should be unpleasing to you.”

Sir Charles smiled.

“You are a shrewd reasoner,” said he. “We will suppose for the instant that you are right. Can you give me no hint what means you would adopt to attain this very desirable end?”

“I would merely make the remark, sir, that many women have been wronged by this fellow. That is a matter of common knowledge. If one of these damsels were to upbraid him in public in such a fashion that the sympathy of the by-standers should by with her, then I can imagine, if she were sufficiently persistent, that his lordship’s position might become an unenviable one.”

“And do you know such a woman?”

“I think, sir, that I do.”

“Well, my good Vereker, if any such attempt is in your mind, I see no reason why I should stand between Lord Barrymore and the angry fair. As to whether the result is worth a thousand pounds, I can make no promise.”

“You shall yourself be the judge, sir.”

“I will be an exacting judge, nephew.”

“Very good, sir; I should not desire otherwise. If things go as I hope, his lordship will not show his face in St. James’s Street for a year to come. I will now, if I may, give you your instructions.”

“My instructions! What do you mean? I have nothing to do with the matter.”

“You are the judge, sir, and therefore must be present.”

“I can play no part.”

“No, sir. I would not ask you to do more than be a witness.”

“What, then, are my instructions, as you are pleased to call them?”

“You will come to the Gardens to-night, uncle, at nine o’clock precisely. You will walk down the centre path, and you will seat yourself upon one of the rustic seats which are beside the statue of Aphrodite. You will wait and you will observe.”

“Very good; I will do so. I begin to perceive, nephew, that the breed of Tregellis has not yet lost some of the points which have made it famous.”

* * *

It was at the stroke of nine that night when Sir Charles, throwing his reins to the groom, descended from his high yellow phaeton, which forthwith turned to take its place in the long line of fashionable carriages waiting for their owners. As he entered the gate of the Gardens, the centre at that time of the dissipation and revelry of London, he turned up the collar of his driving-cape and drew his hat over his eyes, for he had no desire to be personally associated with what might well prove to be a public scandal. In spite of his attempted disguise, however, there was that in his walk and his carriage which caused many an eye to be turned after him as he passed and many a hand to be raised in salute. Sir Charles walked on, and, seating himself upon the rustic bench in front of the famous statue, which was in the very middle of the Gardens, he waited in amused suspense to see the next act in this comedy.

From the pavilion, whence the paths radiated, there came the strains of the band of the Foot Guards, and by the many-coloured lamps twinkling from every tree Sir Charles could see the confused whirl of the dancers. Suddenly the music stopped. The quadrilles were at an end.

An instant afterwards the central path by which he sat was thronged by the revellers. In a many-coloured crowd, stocked and cravated with all the bravery of buff and plum-colour and blue, the bucks of the town passed and repassed with their high-waisted, straight-skirted, be-bonneted ladies upon their arms.

It was not a decorous assembly. Many of the men, flushed and noisy, had come straight from their potations. The women, too, were loud and aggressive. Now and then, with a rush and a swirl, amid a chorus of screams from the girls and good-humoured laughter from their escorts, some band of high-blooded noisy youths would break their way across the moving throng. It was no place for the prim or demure, and there was a spirit of good-nature and merriment among the crowd which condoned the wildest liberty.

And yet there were some limits to what could by tolerated even by so Bohemian an assembly. A murmur of anger followed in the wake of two roisterers who were making their way down the path. It would, perhaps, be fairer to say one roisterer; for of the two it was only the first who carried himself with such insolence, although it was the second who ensured that he could do it with impunity.

The leader was a very tall, hatchet-faced man, dressed in the very height of fashion, whose evil, handsome features were flushed with wine and arrogance. He shouldered his way roughly through the crowd, peering with an abominable smile into the faces of the women, and occasionally, where the weakness of the escort invited an insult, stretching out his hand and caressing the cheek or neck of some passing girl, laughing loudly as she winced away from his touch.

Close at his heels walked his hired attendant, whom, out of insolent caprice and with a desire to show his contempt for the prejudices of others, he had dressed as rough country clergyman. This fellow slouched along with frowning brows and surly, challenging eyes, like some faithful, hideous human bulldog, his knotted hands protruding from his rusty cassock, his great under-hung jaw turning slowly from right to left as he menaced the crowd with his sinister gaze. Already a close observer might have marked upon his face a heaviness and looseness of feature, the first signs of that physical decay which in a very few years was to stretch him, a helpless wreck, too weak to utter his own name, upon the causeway of the London streets. At present, however, he as still an unbeaten man, the terror of the Ring, and as his ill-omened face was seen behind his infamous master many a half-raised cane was lowered and many a hot word was checked, while the whisper of “Hooper! ’Ware Bully Hooper!” warned all who were aggrieved that it might be best to pocket their injuries lest some even worse thing should befall them. Many a maimed and disfigured man had carried away from Vauxhall the handiwork of the Tinman and his patron.

Moving in insolent slowness through the crowd, the bully and his master had just come opposite to the bench upon which sat Sir Charles Tregellis. At this place the path opened up into a circular space, brilliantly illuminated and surrounded by rustic seats. From one of these an elderly, ringleted woman, deeply veiled, rose suddenly and barred the path of the swaggering nobleman. Her voice sounded clear and strident above the babel of tongues, which hushed suddenly that their owners might hear it.

“Marry her, my lord! I entreat you to marry her! Oh, surely you will marry my poor Amelia!” said the voice.

Lord Barrymore stood aghast. From all sides folk were closing in and heads were peering over shoulders. He tried to push on, but the lady barred his way and two palms pressed upon his beruffled front.

“Surely, surely you would not desert her! Take the advice of that good, kind clergyman behind you!” wailed the voice. “Oh, be a man of honour and marry her!”

The elderly lady thrust out her hand and drew forward a lumpish-looking young woman, who sobbed and mopped her eyes with her handkerchief.

“The plague take you!” roared his lordship, in a fury. “Who is the wench? I vow that I never clapped eyes on either of you in my life!”

“It is my niece Amelia,” cried the lady, “your own loving Amelia! Oh, my lord, can you pretend that you have forgotten poor, trusting Amelia, of Woodbine Cottage at Lichfield?”

“I never set foot in Lichfield in my life!” cried the peer. “You are two impostors who should be whipped at the cart’s tail.”

“Oh, wicked! Oh, Amelia!” screamed the lady, in a voice that resounded through the Gardens. “Oh, my darling, try to soften his hard heart; pray him that he make an honest woman of you at last.”

With a lurch the stout young woman fell forward and embraced Lord Barrymore with the hug of a bear. He would have raised his cane, but his arms were pinned to his sides.

“Hooper! Hooper!” screamed the furious peer, craning his neck in horror, for the girl seemed to be trying to kiss him.

But the bruiser, as he rand forward, found himself entangled with the old lady.

“Out o’ the way, marm!” he cried. “Out o’ the way, I say!” and pushed her violently aside.

“Oh, you rude, rude man!” she shrieked, springing back in front of him. “He hustled me, good people; you saw him hustle me! A clergyman, but no gentleman! What! you would treat a lady so — you would do it again? Oh, I could slap, slap, slap you!”

And with each repetition of the word, with extraordinary swiftness, her open palm rang upon the prizefighter’s cheek.

The crowd buzzed with amazement and delight.

“Hooper! Hooper!” cried Lord Barrymore once more, for he was still struggling in the ever-closer embrace of the unwieldy and amorous Amelia.

The bully again pushed forward to the aid of his patron, but again the elderly lady confronted him, her head back, her left arm extended, her whole attitude, to his amazement, that of an expert boxer.

The prizefighter’s brutal nature was roused. Woman or no woman, he would show the murmuring crowd what it meant to cross the path of the Tinman. She had struck him. She must take the consequence. No one should square up to him with impunity. He swung his right arm with a curse. The bonnet instantly ducked under his arm, and a line of razor-like knuckles left an open cut under his eye.

Amid wild cries of delight and encouragement from the dense circle of spectators, the lady danced round the sham clergyman, dodging his ponderous blows, slipping under his arms, and smacking back at him most successfully. Once she tripped and fell over her own skirt, but was up and at him again in an instant.

“You vulgar fellow!” she shrieked. “Would you strike a helpless woman! Take that! Oh, you rude and ill-bred man!”

Bully Hooper was cowed for the first time in his life by the extraordinary thing that he was fighting. The creature was as elusive as a shadow, and yet the blood was dripping down his chin from the effects of the blows. He shrank back with an amazed face from so uncanny an antagonist. And in the moment that he did so his spell was forever broken. Only success could hold it. A check was fatal. In all the crowd there was scarce one who was not nursing some grievance against master or man, and waiting for that moment of weakness in which to revenge it.

With a growl of rage the circle closed in. There was an eddy of furious, struggling men, with Lord Barrymore’s thin, flushed face and Hooper’s bulldog jowl in the centre of it. A moment after they were both upon the ground, and a dozen sticks were rising and falling above them.

“Let me up! You’re killing me! For God’s sake let me up!” cried a crackling voice.

Hooper fought mute, like the bulldog he was, till his senses were beaten out of him.

Bruised, kicked, and mauled, never did their worst victim come so badly from the Gardens as the bully and his patron that night. But worse than the ache of wounds for Lord Barrymore was the smart of the mind as he thought how every club and drawing-room in London would laugh for a week to come at the tale of Amelia and her aunt.

Sir Charles had stood, rocking with laughter, upon the bench which overlooked the scene. When at last he made his way back through the crowds to his yellow phaeton, he was not entirely surprised to find that the back seat was already occupied by two giggling females, who were exchanging most unladylike repartees with the attendant grooms.

“You young rascals!” he remarked, over his shoulder, as he gathered up his reins.

The two females tittered loudly.

“Uncle Charles!” cried the elder, “may I present Mr. Jack Jarvis, of Brasenose College? I think, uncle, you should take us somewhere to sup, for it has been a vastly fatiguing performance. To-morrow I will do myself the honour to call, at your convenience, and will venture to bring with me the receipt for one thousand pounds.”

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

So It’s Come to This.

Some random thoughts on Paris Hilton’s hittish single “Stars Are Blind”:

  • It’s surprisingly non-shitty. In fact, it doesn’t even stretch the definition of “good” too hard. I don’t mean it’s a classic pop song or anything, but it’s pleasantly enjoyable, like a Bangles or a Monkees hit.

  • One of the great advantages any fourth-generation Blondie wannabe has is the fact that Blondie was one of the greatest pop bands ever. (Fourth-generation exactly, by the way: second was Madonna, third was No Doubt/Gwen Stefani. All superior pop acts.)

  • Perhaps most surprisingly, given the singer’s reputation, it’s one of the least-slutty of the Girls of Summer 2006 tracks. Nelly Furtado, Shakira, Fergie, and Beyoncé (each and every one more credible as artists and, more loosely, as feminists; okay, except Fergie) all have songs in the charts that are lewder and more provacative than the first single by a woman who first came to national attention on a no-budget sex tape. (This is all based strictly on the songs themselves, by the way, with no reference to videos or promotional material, which I haven’t seen. For all I know, she could be full-frontal nude in the video.)

  • I can’t stop listening to it, along with Jessica Simpson’s “A Public Affair,” which is prime ’80s Madonna without the boring sexual politics. (Or a female Flock of Seagulls, if that’s an easier pill to swallow.) Makes me think of ABBA if they were produced by Trevor Horn, with some DFA percussion towards the end. Lovely.

  • Obviously, anything good about the song is no credit to Ms. Hilton, but to the producers, songwriters, arrangers, musicians, and possibly ghost-singers she’s hired. I suppose she should be given credit for letting them do their thing and not inflicting her own (probably) miserable taste on the project. But regardless of who’s paying who, ultimately she’s more of a Veronica Bennett doing whatever Phil Spector tells her than a diva in the accepted sense. (Ronnie has a new album out, too, as it happens. Nothing on it is as good as“The Stars Are Blind,” but Ronnie is incomparably the greater artist. Natch.)

  • Actually, a more apt comparison might be with Nancy Sinatra, a rich spoiled daddy’s girl who tried to be a pop star and succeeded on the strength of Lee Hazlewood’s writing, arrangements, and production.

  • Finally, what the fuck. Paris Hilton already serves a function in our popular discourse: she’s the symbol par excellence of everything that’s wrong with American culture, from its vapid anti-intellectualism to its blind materialism to its easily-distracted nature to its fascination with false (and oddly sterile) representations of sexuality. She’s evil; that was the deal. If she’s involved in something good, then the world’s turned upside down. I’m reminded, inevitably perhaps, of G. K. Chesterton: how he would have relished this quasi-redemptive everything-you-know-is-wrong aspect of the matter. Ultimately, we’re forced to admit (ungraciously, like the older brother in the parable) that even Paris Hilton has a soul.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Fiona MacLeod, “Love in a Mist”

This is the first story in the series that is actually sick-making. Be warned: the sentimentality herein is pretty overwhelming. Fiona MacLeod was the pen name of a dude named William Sharp, who was a friend of George MacDonald and did the whole Christian-mysticism-fading-into-Paganism thing in a way to make sure he would never be taken seriously by later generations. (The reason he chose a female pen name, the reverse of then-common practice, probably has more to do with the Victorian cult of woman as a sensitive, spiritual being than with any sexual-identity politics on his part. Which cult is bullshit, no matter what Gaiea the Earth Mother says.) Anyway, the story was found in an 1896 volume called Good Words.

In a green hollow in the woodlands, Love, a mere child, with sunny golden curls and large blue eyes, stood whimpering. A round tear had fallen on his breast and trickled slowly down his white skin, till it lay like a dewdrop on his thigh: another was in pursuit, but had reached no further than a dimple in the chubby cheek, into which it had heedlessly rolled and could not get out again. Beside Love was a thicket of white wild roses, so innumerable that they seemed like a cloud of butterflies alit on a hedge for a moment and about to take wing — so white that the little wanderer looked as though he were made of rose-stained ivory. Here was the cause of the boy’s whimpering. A thorn-point had slightly scratched his right arm, barely tearing the skin but puncturing it sufficiently to let a tiny drop of blood, like a baby rowan-berry, slowly well forth.

Love looked long and earnestly at the wound. Then he whimpered, but stopped to smile at a squirrel who pretended to be examining the state of its tail, but was really watching him. When the little drop of blood would neither roll away nor go back, Love grew angry, and began to cry.

“Ah, I am so weak,” he sighed; “perhaps I shall die! Ah, wretched little soul that I am, to lie here in this horrible thorny wood. No — no — I will drag myself out into the sunshine, and die there. Perhaps — p’raps — (sniffle) — ’aps — (sniffle) — a kind lark will” — (sniffle).

Sobbing bitterly, Love crept through a beech-hedge, and so into the open sunlit meadow beyond. He was so unhappy that he quite forgot to knock off from a grey thistle a huge snail, although its shell shone temptingly many-hued; and even a cricket that jumped on to his foot and then off again hardly brought to his face a wan smile.

But after sitting awhile by a heavy burdock, and sobbing at gradually lengthening intervals, he stopped abruptly. Out of a garth of red clover and white campions he saw two round black eyes staring at him with such unmitigated astonishment that he could do nothing but stare back with equal rigidity and silence.

“Why, it is only a brown hare,” exclaimed Love below his breath. “How it smiles!” — and therewith he broke into so hearty a laugh that the hare sprang round as if on a pivot, and went leaping away through the meadow. Beyond the puffed campions were a cluster of tall ox-eye daisies, and they moved so temptingly towards him in the breeze that Love ran as it were to meet them.

No sooner, however, was he in their midst than he pluckt them one by one, and then ran back with them towards the wood, in whose cool shadow, he thought, it would be delightful to weave of them a starry wreath.

But by the time the wreath was woven, Love was both thirsty and aweary of being still. So, having sipped the dew from a bed of green mosses among the surface-roots of a vast oak, he ran into a little wilderness of wild hyacinths, and danced therein with maddest glee, while the sunlight splashed upon him through the dappling shadows of the oak boughs.

A fat bumble-bee and two white butterflies joined him for a time, but at last the bee grew hot and breathless, and the butterflies were frightened by his joyous laughter and the clapping of his little hands. Scarce, however, was he left alone once more than he descried a young fawn among the fern. It took him but a moment to snatch his wreath of ox-eye daisies and but another to spring to the side of the startled fawn and place the wreath round its neck. The great brown eyes looked fearfully at Love, who, little rascal, pretended to be caressing when he was really making ready for a leap. In a second he was on the fawn’s back — but ah! poor Love, he had not calculated for such a flight. Away sped the fawn, athwart the glade, through the hollow, and out across the meadow towards the sand-dune. Gradually Love’s hold became more and more insecure, and at last off he came right into a mass of yellow irises and a tadpole-haunted little pool.

Love might have stopped to cry, or at least to chase the tadpoles, but he happened to see a sea-gull flying low beyond him across the dunes. With a shout he pursued it, forgetful alike of the fawn and his lost wreath.

But when he came to the break in the dunes he could not see the ocean because of the haze that lay upon it, and in which the sea-gull was soon lost to sight. But at least the sands were there. For a time he wandered disconsolately along the shore. Then, when he saw the tide slowly advancing, he frowned. “Ha! ha!” he laughed, “I shall build a castle of sand, and then the sea will not know what to do, and the white gull will come back again.”

But having built his sand-castle, Love was so weary that he curled himself up behind the shallow barrier, and having wearily but lovingly placed beside him three pink half-shells, a pearly willie-winkie, a piece of wave-worn chalk, and a hermit-crab (which soon crawled away), he was speedily asleep.

Before long the ripple of the water against the very frontier of his small domain aroused the brine-bred things that live by the sea-marge. A few cockles gaped thirstily, and one or two whistle-fish sent their jets of water up into the air and then protruded their shelly snouts as if to scan the tardy advance of the tide. The sand-lice bestirred themselves, creeping, leaping, confusedly eager not to be overtaken by that rapid ooze which would quicksand them in a moment.

Then a piece of dulse was washed right on to the castle-wall. On the salt-smelling wrack was a crab, and this startled voyager saw dry land and mayhap new food to sample in the white foot of Love that lay temptingly near. Just then a flying shrimp, a mad aeronaut, a reckless enthusiast among its kind, took the fortress at a leap and alighted on Love’s white and crinkled belly. The boy’s body instinctively shivered. Still, he might not have awaked, had not the crab at that moment joyously gripped, as succulent prey, his little toe, curled as it was like a small and dainty mollusc.

Love sat up, and with indignant eyes remonstrated with the crab, who had at once given way and retreated with haphazard assiduity to the shelter of a convenient pebble partially embedded in the sand.

As for the shrimp, it had come and gone like the very ghost of a tickle, like the dream-fly of sleepland.

But suddenly Love heard a voice, a low whisper, coming he knew not whence, and yet so strangely familiar. Was it borne upon the white lips of the tide, or did it come from the curving billow that swept shoreward, or from the deep beyond? Who can guess what the voice said, since Love himself knew not the sweet strange word, but was comforted: knowing only that he was to return to the wood again. Fragments he caught, though little comprehensible: “My child, my little wandering Love, who art born daily, and art ever young,” and then the words of which he knew nothing, or but vaguely apprehended.

Yet ever petulant, Love would rather have stayed by the sea, even to the undoing of his castle-walls, already toppling with the upward reaching damp of the stealthy underooze, had he not descried a white wild-goat standing on the dune and looking at him with mild eyes like sunlit sardonyx. With a glad cry he ran towards the goat, who made no play of caprice but seemed to invite, for all the strangeness of the essay, this young rider with the child’s smile and the emperor’s eyes.

The yellow-hammers and ousels, the whin-chats and sea-larks sent abroad long thrilling notes in their excitement, as the white goat, with Love laughingly astride, raced across the dunes and over the meadows towards the wood. But as the too-impulsive steed took a fallen oak at a bound, its feet caught in the loose bark, and poor Love was shot forward into a hollow of green moss. Alas, in the comet-like passage thither, a nettle slightly stung the sole of one foot; so that the moment he had recovered from his somersault he snatched a broken oak-branch, and turned to chastise the too heedless goat. But, to his astonishment, no goat was to be seen. It had disappeared as though it were a blossom blown by the wind.

Rubbing his eyes, Love looked again and again. No goat; no sound, even, save the ruffling of the low wind among the lofty domes of the forest, the tap-tapping of a woodpecker, the shrill cry of a jay and indiscriminate warbling undertone of a myriad birds, with, below all, the chirp of the grasshopper and the drone of the small wood-wasp and the foraging bee.

Beyond the last copse the sun was slowly moving in a whirlwind of golden fire.

Hark! What was that? Love started, and then slipped cautiously from tree to tree, finding his way into the woodland like a gliding sunray. He heard voices, and a snatch of a song: —

“The wild bird called to me, ‘Follow!’
The nightingale whispered ‘Stay!’
When lost in the hawthorn-hollow
We” . . . . .

The next moment he descried a lovely girl lying on the moss below an oak, with her face towards the setting sun, whose warm flood soaked through the wide green flame of the irradiated leaves. A little way beyond her was a young man, no other than the singer, standing by an easel, and putting the last touches to the canvas upon which he was at work.

Love was curious. He had never seen a picture, and, in fact, he thought the man was probably spreading out something to eat. He, child though he was, was so fearless, that no one could have daunted him, and so natively royal, that no idea even of his being gainsaid troubled his brain.

With great interest he stole alongside the painter. He looked at the canvas dubiously; sniffed it; and then turned away with a gesture of disapproval. He liked the look of the pigments on a palette that lay on the ground, and thought that the man was perhaps no other than he who painted the king-cups and violets and bells of the hyacinths. But the smell made him sick, and so he stole towards the girl to see what she was doing.

It vaguely puzzled him that neither the man nor the girl seemed to be aware of his presence; yet, as Love never troubled to think, the bewilderment was but a shadow of a passing cloud. The girl was beautiful. He loved better to look at her than at any other flower of the forest. Even the blue cornflower, even the hedge-speedwell, had not so exquisite a blue as the dream-wrought eyes into whose unconscious depths he looked long, and saw at last his own image, clear as in deep water. “I wish she would sing,” said Love to himself; “that man yonder is no better than a huge bumble-bee.” With a mischievous glance he pluckt a tall wind-flower, and gently tickled her with it.

A faint smile, a delicate wave of colour, came into her face. “Ah, Love! Love!” she whispered below her breath.

How sweet the words were! With a happy sigh Love cuddled up close to the beautiful girl, and, tired and drowsy, would soon have fallen asleep, had not the heaving of her bosom disturbed him.

“Ah, what a tiresome world it is,” exclaimed Love fretfully, as he crawled indolently away, and then rested again among some blue flowers. There he sat for some time, sulkily tying a periwinkle round each toe. Suddenly, with a cry of joy, he descried among the flowers his lost bow and sheaf of arrows. With a merry laugh he reached for them, and in mere wantonness began to fray the petals with an arrow, and to tangle them into an intricate net of blue blossom and green fibre.

But in the midst of his glee came retribution. He heard a rustling sound, a quick exclamation, and the next moment an easel fell right atop of him, and, but for his soft, mossy carpet, might have flattened him, for all his white plumpness. True, the easel was picked up again immediately, but Love felt the insult as well as the blow. With a yell of anger, that very nearly startled a neighbouring caterpillar, he fitted an arrow to his bow, and shot it straight at the clumsy owner of the easel. “Aha,” he thought, “I have paid you back, you see,” for he saw the young man stop, grow pale, hesitate, and then suddenly fall on his knees. “Ah! he is wounded to death,” and Love’s tender heart got the better of his resentment, and he would fain have recalled that deadly arrow. But to his astonishment the youth seemed more eager to seize and kiss the girl’s hand than to save his life, if that were still possible!

As for the girl, the sunset was upon her face as a flame. She tried to rise, and in doing to trampled upon one of Love’s toes. Poor little Love danced about furiously on one foot, holding his wounded toe with one hand; but alas! again his hasty anger overcame him, and, before he realised what he had done, he shot another arrow, this time straight into the heart of the lovely girl.

Alas, how it weakened her at once! In the agony of death, no doubt, she fell forward into the man’s arms and laid her head upon his breast.

But speedily Love saw that they were not dead or even dying, but merely kissing and fondling each other, and this too in the most insensate fashion.

“Oh, how funny! how funny!” laughed Love, and rolled about in an ecstasy among the blue flowers, making the tangle worse than ever.

* * *


She. Darling — darling — let me go now — let me go. It will soon be dark.

He. Sweetheart, wait!

She. Hush! What is that?

(A low tiny snore comes from amidst the blue flowers.)

He. Oh, it is only a beetle rubbing its shards, or a mole burrowing through the grass.

She. Ah, look; we are trampling underfoot such beautiful flowers. These must be our flowers, dear, must they not? What are they?

He. I don’t know — ah, yes, to be sure — they must be the flower called “Love in a Mist.”

She (dreamily). I wonder if we could see Love himself if we searched below all this blue tangle?

. . . She leans down, and peers through the blue veil of the flowers. Love wakes with the fragrance of her warm breath playing upon his cheek, but does not sir, for he his remorseful at having shot an arrow at so lovely a thing. With loving caressing touch he gently lays a dew-drop into each blue flower of her eyes. . . .

She (whispering as she rises). How beautiful, how wonderful it all is!

He. Ah, darling, tears in those beautiful eyes! Come, let me kiss them away.

Love (below his breath). Greedy wretch — I gave them to her! Ah, she shall have many more, and you, mayhap, none!

Hand in hand, the lovers go away, and, well content, Love turns over on his side and is soon sound asleep. The moon rises, full and golden yellow. From a beech-covert a nightingale sings with intermittent snatches of joy. Above the blue flowers two white night-moths flicker in a slow fantastic wayward dance. A glowworm, hanging on a lock of Love’s curly hair, shines as though it were the child of a moonbeam and a flower.

But at last the glowworm, crawling from its high place and adown the white sweetness of Love’s face, tickled his small nose, and caused him to sit up, startled, and wide awake. “What — who?” muttered Love confusedly.

Quir-rr-rr-o! . . . Quir-rr-rr-o!
Kew-u-ee, kwee! Kwee-kwee-tchug! tchug! tchug! kwee-kwilloh!
A RESTLESS MAGPIE (mockingly).
Kwilloh . . . kwollow, ohee kwollow-kwan!

Follow . . . oh, follow them!
Follow! . . . Fol . . . low!
LOVE (rising).
I come, I come! who calls?
DISTANT ECHO (faintly).
Fol . . . low.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Martha Wolfenstein, “A Judgment of Solomon”

I know nothing about Martha Wolfenstein. I gather, from the name and from the character of the story that follows, that she was Jewish and probably of German or Polish extraction, but I don’t remember whether I found her in the American or British sections of the library. I do know that the book this brief story— anecdote, really — was found in is called A Renegade and Other Tales, and it was published in 1905.

One fine day in spring, young Stephan came tearing from town on horseback, burst into the farmhouse kitchen, crying desperately:

“Uncle Pawel, Uncle Pawel, I’m undone! I must have a hundred Gulden at once, or be thrown into prison, and left there to rot.”

“One hundred Gulden! Whui!” cried Pawel Bauer. “It is all I have in the world, and Anushka’s dowry at that. What mischief hast got into again?”

“So thou refusest?” cried Stephan.

“I need only twenty-five more, for Christoph says the day I lay him down one hundred and twenty-five, he marries my Anushka.”

“Well, then, good-bye, and say a mass for my soul,” cried Stephan, hotly, and made for the door.

“Wait, wait, — where goest thou in such a hurry?”

“To the devil! To throw myself into the well!”

“Wait, Stephanko, my boy,” pleaded Pawel, clutching his nephew’s coat-tails frantically. “How can I know thou’lt pay me back?”

“Nothing easier,” said Stephan, instantly calm. “I simply write thee a note, promising to pay on such and such a day. ’Tis as good as gold.”

In half an hour, young Stephan, chirping like a bird, was tearing townward, and Pawel stood spelling over a large scrawl, which read:

I promise to pay one hundred Gulden to Pawel Bauer on St. Pagnoocius Day.
Signed, Stephan Stadter, the Younger.
Pawel put this note into the stocking, empty of the best part of Anna’s dowry, and each Sunday took down his calendar to see whenther Pagnoocius were not due that week; but spring waxed into summer, and summer waned into autumn, the harvest was in, and the twenty-five Gulden necessary to the consummation of Anna’s matrimonial hopes lay beside the note, but Pagnoocius had not arrived.

“Anushka is not so young that she can wait!” scolded Buzhinka, her mother.

“Perhaps I’ve skipped him,” mused Pawel, scratching under his cap. “I’m not so strong on print as I used to be.”

“I’ll go ask the priest,” he decided.

The priest did not take down his calendar as Pawel expected, but, after a single glance at the note, threw himself into a chair, laughing uproariously.

“Pag-noo-oo-cius,” he roared. “Ho, — ho — a comical rogue! I don’t wonder thou foundest him not in the calendar; truly ’tis the first time I ever heard of the gentleman. By all the saints, he has done thee, Pawel!”

Pawel looked blank.

“Thou hadst best consult a lawyer,” advised the priest.

Advocat Hummel, grown old and wise in village practice, took the matter more gravely.

“Hm, — the note is good, but you cannot collect it,” he said with fine logic. “He promises to pay, but there is no Pagnoocius.”

“What’s to be done? My Anushka’s dowry!” lamented Pawel.

“My advice to you is to wait,” said the lawyer, pocketing his fee. “Wait! Who knows, perhaps there may some day be such a saint.”

Pawel went home in despair. Buzhinka swore mighty oaths, and Anna wept loudly into her apron.

It chanced that Anshel, the Jewish peddler, dropped in on his weekly rounds that day, and heard the story sympathetically.

“I know someone can help thee, Pawel,” he said. “Solomon Edelstein is his name, and he keeps a little wine-shop in our village, but he is a finished lawyer. A head on him — of iron, I tell thee, — he has helped more than one ouf of a pickle.”

Next day Pawel appeared with his friend Anshel before Solomon Edelstein, who, much to Bauer’s astonishment, neither laughed at the note nor looked grave; but after a careless glance into it, he laid it indifferently aside, and continued his reading in a large, yellow-leafed book.

Pawel’s hope sank like lead, but presently old Solomon raised his eye-brows wearily, dropped his head meekly to one side, and said in a small, sad voice:

“On the second of November you’ll get your money.”

“How so on the second?” questioned Pawel, dubiously.

Solomon did not reply. He was bending over his book again, intently reading.

“If the egg was laid on a Sabbath — ” he murmured musically, his thumb wagging an active accompaniment, and Anshel with a knowing shrug took Pawel away.

The following week Pawel and old Solomon appeared at court, where young Stephan had been summoned for non-payment of his note.

“I do not refuse to pay,” cried Stephan, smiling confidently. “As you see in the note, I promise.”

“Fool,” growled the judge. “Pagnoocius! You can’t collect on that. The note is no good. The case is dismissed.”

“Pardon me,” piped a small, sad voice, and all eyes turned to where little Solomon stood with his head drooping meekly to one side.

“Pardon me, Herr Richter. He must pay. The note is good. The note is very good.”

“So! Do you perhaps know when is St. Pagnoocius?” barked the judge.

“Why should I not know?” answered Solomon. “It is the day after to-morrow.”

“What? How? What do you mean?”

“Is not the day after to-morrow All Saints’ Day? Nu, if it is all saints’ day, Pagnoocius must be among them.”

And they bought the raisins for Anushka’s wedding-cake that very day.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A Retraction.

Yeah, I should totally have waited until my thoughts were clearer before posting yesterday. (Not to mention I left out several great books, not one of which are coming to mind now, of course.)

The nonsense following the massive paragraph on The Lord of the Rings should probably be ignored: it’s indefensible in both style and logic, and I don’t even agree with most of it twenty-four hours later. (By the way, why the hell do I always want to structure my sentences like that? I need to take remedial Hemingway or something.)

That’s probably one of the best arguments for my avoiding fantasy: it makes my writing voice wonky, and screws up my aesthetic sense something fierce. It’s back to the Wodehouse for me.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Ten Fantasies.

I’ve been vocal in the past about my distaste for fantasy and science fiction, a dislike partly temperamental and partly born from a dislike for the lichenous fandom that has aggregated around the forms until today they are shaggy and overgrown with pathetic imitations of what they once were. I still cordially dislike science fiction, and have done so ever since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. (I mean of course the true science fiction, the stuff that deals with important themes and casts a cold fictional light on mortal philosophies; mere nonsense featuring robots and aliens is as welcome to me as all other mere nonsense. I too loved the original Star Wars trilogy as a child.)

But for fantasy I have rediscovered my ancient love, thanks to the Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe DVD, which I found myself some weeks ago unable to stop watching. Then I burned through the seven books again, listening to them on CD (which, I should pause to note, is an excellent way to rediscover books I think I know by heart; I’m too often a skimmer, especially with familiar texts, and hearing every word from someone else’s lips engages me with the actual words more deeply than I have been for years), and then, after a short detour into the rest of C. S. Lewis (my old tutor, once upon a time; in my teenage years he was to me what he said George MacDonald was to him — not that I’m the only one), I returned to the granite pillar of my imagination, the book that when I was ten flung open a vast new world, terrible and beautiful, and whose echoes I am even now repeating in unworthy imitation prose. The Lord of the Rings, of course. (Mentioned it last post, didn’t I?)

I finished listening to it today, and decided, as a sort of truce to arguments I had a few years ago (and which seem to have receded into the vanished internet past, except for this solitary Google cache page; God, I was/am a pretentious twit), to list and write about ten fantasy novels I’ve enjoyed fairly recently.

You’ll notice that only one was published (barely) after The Lord of the Rings, and that only one is in that book’s tradition. Browsing in the sci-fi/fantasy section of any bookstore still brings the gorge rising faster than in any other section, paperback romance included. It’s a damned and damnable shame that a branch of literature which should be (and once was, perhaps) notable for its deep idiosyncracy of imagination, style, and voice should now be all so drearily similar. (Of course there are, and have always been, exceptions. I’m not really interested, though I’ll graciously fake it at need. I did like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but that was because of its Austenian style and had nothing to do with the subject matter.) My favorite period of fantasy, as of much else in literature, is from the Victorian period to the 1930s, when the pulps began to regularize and streamline imaginative fiction into an easily-digested handful of settings, themes and character types, fossilized by The Lord of the Rings twenty years later. (Though that was a different and wilder strain, as I’ll dig into later; but it was quickly domesticated in the marketplace.) The tradition, if it could be called one, of Lord Dunsany, William Morris, Arthur Machen, and Walter de la Mare — even the violent, unsophisticated visions of Burroughs, Howard, and Lovecraft — is what I love, much more than most works written after electric lights, tarmac and plastic had covered the face of the earth.

Anyway. You will find hypocrisy here, and to spare; I couldn’t find ten fantasies that I loved deeply, nor that had been read within the past year, so I’ve scrounged and some books are half-elven only, and some unloved, and some almost forgotten (though the spines glare at me from the bookshelf and I think I will take them down again soon). There are also many books, both that I own and that I long to own, that I have yet to read and which perhaps might make a greater part of this list in coming years.

(Dammit, Tolkien, get out of my head; give me back my own voice, if I have one!)

Anyway, the list. The numbering is random, and should not be taken as any indication of quality, real or perceived:

10. The Stray Lamb by Thorne Smith (1924)
Smith has more in common with James Thurber, Damon Runyon, and Broadway playwright George S. Kaufman than with anyone whose book covers were painted by someone who admired Frank Frazetta. But all of his books are fantasies in the simple sense that things happen in them — and the stories are motivated by things — which are impossible, and which do not pretend to any degree of plausibility. They’re also comic (which is not to say funny), and generally feature middle-aged suburbanites breaking free of humdrum reality. The Stray Lamb is about one such henpecked husband who turns into various animals. I was reminded of T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, but this is much better (I loathe T. H. White), because there are no lessons learned, except the one every infant already knows in its bones: Do Whatever the Hell You Want.

9. Rose Royal by E. Nesbit (1911)
I wouldn’t call this a great book; it might not even be very good. But it’s memorable, and reminded me of Frankenstein and Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman. (Both of which, of course, owe much to the Faust legend, if not specifically to Goethe’s Faust.) It’s a scientist-(kind-of)-meddles-in-matters-too-deep-for-him romance, and wants to be a tragedy, but its earlier chapters are too lighthearted for that. It bears the telltale shifts in tone of a novel that was originally serialized in magazines, and was probably written quickly, for the money. But Nesbit was a good writer at worst, and a keenly observant fantasist at best (her children’s books, starting with Five Children and It, are the immortal ones), and it’s worth the afternoon or so it takes to read it.

8. Many Dimensions by Charles Williams (1931)
Williams was a friend of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Dorothy L. Sayers, and T. S. Eliot; his seven supernatural thrillers are much prized by those who admire literary freaks that don’t fit into any category. Although the subject matter would fit into any old mass-market Da Vinci Code-esque potboiler today, this (my favorite of his books, for reasons entirely unrelated to quality) is a much stranger and deeper thing: written in an ornate, shrewdly delirious style that recalls Henry James or D. H. Lawrence, it has Williams’ wide-ranging theological speculativeness at its back, and there is almost no action, though strange, troubling, and highly magical things happen in it. There is even a talisman of great power, though any similarity to The Lord of the Rings ends there.

7. The Dreadful Dragon of Hay Hill by Max Beerbohm (1928)
This is, perhaps, more of a novella, and is certainly a fable in form and content, rather than a fantasy novel under the rules of the genre, but hell, it’s my list. Beerbohm’s odd take on male-female relationships (he was married for most of his life, but his biographers agree that he was either gay or entirely asexual; he almost certainly never consummated the marriage) is at the heart of the story, which reminded me at first of Tolkien’s children’s stories, then entered into a world which recalled Mark Twain’s late-life stories. There is a dragon, yes, but it’s almost incidental to the plot, such as it is. It’s certainly not one of Beerbohm’s best works, but I’d rather have read it than not.

6. The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton (1908)
Almost certainly Chesterton’s best work (well, fiction, anyway) (well, full-length novel, anyway), this only turns into fantasy in the last couple of chapters; but nearly all of Chesterton’s fiction has that wild, dream-like quality which he so much loved to describe, and even when it’s a straightforward spy story in the first few chapters, it’s the most romantic, fairy-tale-like spy story ever. Turning to John Buchan or Somerset Maugham (the great espionage novelists of the period) afterwards is almost to turn from rich, feasting fare to stale crusts, that’s how expansive Chesterton’s vision always is. Nobody staked out in a more satisfying way the borders between ordinary, daylit life and the moody shadows of romance and faery.

5. Phantastes by George MacDonald (1858)
I have almost nothing to say about this book; I read it once, long ago, and remember being very disappointed, after C. S. Lewis said that it had baptized his imagination. But that is all I remember, and it’s either been stolen or sold; I can’t find it in my library now. I’ll try to find and read it again soon, and I’ll report back to you. After ten years under my belt since I last looked at it, I expect I’ll understand it better.

4. Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis (1956)
This again only barely qualifies as fantasy; it’s a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth (from which the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale was derived) in sober, novelistic fashion, but without losing any of the power of the myth. Lewis being Lewis, there’s a didactic point about the relationship between God and man buried in the subtext, but this is late Lewis, and he’s more subtle and agnostic-friendly here than anywhere else; though as always I can’t really imagine anyone enjoying Lewis without at least partly agreeing with him.

3. The Stolen March by Dornford Yates (1926)
The main reference point here is Alice in Wonderland, though it’s never mentioned in the text. But the characters are adults (nominally, anyway; Yates’ protagonists were always a schoolboy’s vision of adulthood, heroic fantasy with revolvers and cars instead of swords and horses), and Lewis Carroll’s mathematician’s delight in conundrums is replaced by a lawyer’s delight in loopholes. At the end it turns into a mere chase scene, and what once seemed Chestertonian turns out to be only Buchanish. But it’s still a rare creature (literally as well as figuratively; it only ever had the one printing), and although the heroes are all the old Yates characters under different names, they are still charming. But the Berry stories are best.

2. The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany (1924)
I read this for the first time last weekend, and I’m not sure it’s yet settled in deeply enough for me to do more than babble. It is a great, very great, work of high fantasy, and I still seem to be under the spell of the prose. Though Tolkien’s more obsessively-varnished world may have supplanted Dunsany’s placid Edwardian vision of Elfland in the popular imagination (I had a difficult time not picturing Orlando Bloom in pale makeup), I think on the whole I prefer this less dominating vision, which is more akin to MacDonald’s, Chesterton’s (in Orthodoxy) and, through some strange sympathy of imagination, E. M. Forster in Howards End. I was prepared for a terrible letdown, and found instead a happy ending, if unintelligible to the mortal mind. (The Man Who Was Thursday has something of the same shape.)

1. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien (1955)
Yes, okay. Here’s the excuse for the list itself. I just finished listening to it, and I feel shy in writing about it; not because I don’t think my opinion matters, or even because it will be lost in the great clamor of talk about it (much greater since the movies came out and made it common pop-culture property), but because I don’t want to be mistaken for the ordinary fantasy fan for whom this is a touchstone of imagination. Which is one reason I put forth the other books first: I don’t really care for this kind of story, except in the case of this precise story. The reason why I love The Lord of the Rings probably has more to do with when I first read it and how old I was and how it dovetails with my own mature understanding of the world and of literature (which were partly formed by it) than anything else, but I think more than anything I love the romanticized countryside sensibility which knits ancient Old English epics and a highly particular eighteenth-century English humor together; in places, not unlike Sam Weller trotting along behind Beowulf. (Have the fantasy geeks who outbid each other for Weta-approved swords on eBay even heard of the Pickwick Papers? Do they realize that Dickensian is the only adjective for the Shire? Do they know what Dickensian means? Have they read Chesterton on Dickens, which is about the only way to really get it?) That, I think, is what I miss in other, later fantasies: the wide knowledge and understanding of various literary/cultural traditions. The Númenoreans are, of course, the Greco-Roman culture as seen by a Saxon peasant circa 800 A.D. or so; the Dwarves, and Orcs are straight out of Wagner (or rather, Wagner’s sources). We are a smaller people today, it seems, even than in Tolkien’s day, and where he, standing Prometheus-like in his rooms at Oxford, was able to forge the Icelandic Eddas, deeply-felt (if not studied) Catholic theology, nineteenth-century German romanticism, Homer’s understanding of love and war, the (nowadays homoerotic) Edwardian ideal of young manhood (not to mention class relations), a Spenserian attitude towards romance, Kipling’s understanding of soldiery, a Wordsworthian vision of nature, and a Chestertonian (I will say it; it sticks out a mile) vision not only of social life, but of valor, romance, and desperate circumstances, as in “The Ballad of the White Horse” — he was able, I say, to forge all this into a fairly coherent novel with real depth and even some psychology to it (this sticks out all the more when compared to something like The Worm Ouroboros, which is a long dull thing of battles and pseudo-heroism without a pinch of humor or a recognizably human motive, and even fewer women than in Tolkien). Compare that to the world-builders of today (they would have us believe), who can only vaguely echo Tolkien and other twentieth-century writers, and who are trying not to develop the mythology of a nation (Tolkien wanted his Middle-earth to do for England what Wagner’s operas had done for Germany; it is perhaps a relief that it hasn’t yet done so) but merely develop a personal vision, which always turns cramped and airless and sour. Even the fantasy addicts I know always complain that the a series turns bad after the first five or so novels; not that they stop reading them. This is not even to touch on the thrice-accursed plague of Dungeons & Dragons; no, I don’t mean the silly charges of Satanism I heard as a child in the ’80s, I mean the lack of real imagination, the mass-market streamlining, categorizing, and foul, hideous merchandising, which is all the modern world knows how to do with any product of imagination. (We’ve delivered the world to the Hoopers, as Waugh said, and I don’t think Tolkien would have disagreed.) And Tolkien was a poet. Not, of course, in the modern tradition; I don’t think he really cared for any poetry more recent than Chaucer, if so recent. But his long poems, which modern readers complain about and applaud their removal in the mass-market streamlined films, are the key to really understanding and loving The Lord of the Rings; or at least they are for me. This came home most clearly when listening to the books: Tolkien finds his greatest achievement, I think, in the many voices of the poetry, from the stately Elvish (very like the classical poets Tolkien the schoolboy learned by heart) to the saucy hobbitish (very English, and folk-English at that), to the blood-whipping songs of the Rohirrim (the tears start to my eyes, I shit you not, whenever I read Eomer’s lament for Theoden) to the craggy, hard-bitten lines lamenting Boromir (where I wonder if he first cast the words into Old English and then transliterated them; they are Beowulfian in their rise and fall). And then there are the languages: his deep love for language, only rivalled by his love for things of nature, is on strange display; and perhaps only the imagination that, loving trees, created the Ents, could possibly have, loving real languages, created fictional ones that pierce the heart with their strange, wild sound. It is these things that make his fiction great; but it is also these things that make it tolerable. Without these deeply strange and curious patterns running down to the very quicks of Tolkien’s Catholic soul, the story is nothing, a hodgepodge of Campbellian myth filtered through the shell-shocked memory of the trenches of 1914-18, with which libraries are already filled. But too many pretend (or believe, wrongly) that the story is the important thing. It’s not. Tales of good and evil only work when the teller actually believes in good and evil, as Tolkien did. Shades of gray of course there are, in life; but shades of gray in fantasy (that pretends to be of good and evil) is merely wearisome, and tells us nothing that twenty years spent among human beings has not already told.

If we must have fantasy, let us have world-creation, as Tolkien often said, and let the worlds be not merely imitations, shadows of other creations or doubtful improvements on them according to taste, but things actually builded, carved hard from the vast mountains of culture, wisdom, knowledge, and art which exist in the fields we know, as a sculptor carves from the marble a thing which has not been seen before. And if we pretend to reject the world as it is, then let us do so truly, and refuse the beggarly demand of fitting our tales to the need and whims of the fields we know. If we would discover an Elfland, then it will fit in with our world or not, as it will; but allegory, didacticism, and sophistry alike are hateful to the worlds beyond our own, and they wither at their touch.

Or, if we cannot approach those heights, let us have fantasy of the more domestic sort, and talk of strange things that happen in our own world, as the other nine novels have it (more or less), or on the borders of our world and some other, and so learn more of ourselves, rather than of our flickering dreams.

Not, of course, that the world as we know it today is one I willingly read about, unless it is transformed by a strong vision, and even for lazy comfort I read of things that no longer exist (butlers and gentlemen’s clubs and paranoid weekends in country houses), though that too is a kind of fantasy, a world-building of a gentler and less overbearing sort, though no less airless in the end. For of my part I am half enchanted by waistcoasts and frock-coats, by the wearing of spats and the romance of the top-hat. (How Chesterton would grin!) Canes are as romantic as swords when canes are no longer common.

Yet because I delivered myself up as a child to Lewis and Tolkien, it does pierce me to the quick to think of a broad sword worn on the side, and a suit of mail, and women in long robes with belts that meet below the hip. And if you have not read Surprised by Joy, you may not understand what the hell I’m talking about, and if you don’t know P. G. Wodehouse (as I read him), you won’t even understand the previous paragraph. Sehnsucht, the Germans call it, a longing which has something to do with nostalgia and something to do with the desire of our immortal souls for heaven (in the theology of Pope John Paul II). That, I deem, is the true purpose of fantasy (and here those who don’t like or who disagree with Lewis and Tolkien can fuck off, and welcome to it), to remind us that this world is not our home, that we long for other and better things, and to perhaps, if we labor truly and well, give some hint (though always, always conditioned by environment, culture, taste, and chance) of those unuttered heights to which our souls aspires.

(Ah, well. Perhaps it’s all nonsense, when all is said and done. Perhaps we are just children making tales. But it seems to me a curious thing, that children making tales can invent a world that licks your real world clean hollow. And that’s why I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan, and I’m for Narnia even if there isn’t any Narnia to be for. So begging your pardon ma’am, and thanking you for the meal, we’ll be off. Paraphrased from memory, of course. But there’s no more gladly Chestertonian moment in any book, even within Chesterton’s writings.)

Hate fantasy? No. I love it too dearly to be glad if it’s done poorly, or half-well, or even almost perfectly. And I can’t bear it when it tells lies, any more than a lover could. And since I believe the Christian creeds are true, anti-Christian or non-Christian fantasy is always dimmer and fouler than the stuff I was weaned on. Sorry, Pullman. You at least will have to get along without me.

Okay. I’m done free-associating. You can move on now. Very sorry to have taken up so much of your time, I’m sure.

Monday, July 10, 2006

JULY STUFF: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (1 in a Series)

I mentioned below that July is a major month for Things I’m Interested In. I’ve decided to attempt to run a series of reviews/recommendations/blatherings about such Things during this worst of months (at least here in Arizona). The first Thing about which I’ve schooled my will to write is The Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.

Now, I’m not actually interested in movies; that is, I don’t care for the art of film in the way I care for literature and popular music and comics and philosophy. So I am out of my depth, or possibly refuse to believe that the entire ocean is not shallow, when I talk critically about movies. (This is, you’ll notice, a decided about-face from the near-universal opinion of the masses; the majority hold no firm opinions on the rest of the arts, but everyone is quite certain that he or she knows when a movie is good or bad. This proves nothing except that movies are the most popular of the popular arts, which we knew already.)

All this to say, that I disagree with the critical consensus (as measured by sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic) that this movie is markedly worse than its predecessor. Of course its predecessor was wonderful, an unlooked-for gift in the midst of summer doldrums three years ago, a blockbuster that was cheerful, witty, and smart, a profoundly satisfying experience for quite a great many people. But I’m not interested in gradations of quality (and am totally unconvinced they exist); what are the other, less-measurable aspects of the movie that makes it the experience it is?

I’ve seen it twice: once alone at a matinee, and the next day with my brother at an evening show. Both times the theaters were stuffed to the gills. Which is a pleasant experience, being with a whole horde of people who are reacting to the same things you are; the slow trickles of laughter cascading around the theater as a slow-burn joke sinks in are especially fun. And I was in a mood to enjoy the movie; I generally don’t expect or want movies to satisfy on any deeper level than sheer entertainment, and actively avoid the kinds that tackle Big Themes and have Deep Insight and win (or deserve) Academy Awards. (Millions of people do likewise with books; someone’s gotta be out there to reverse-snob the movies.) And as entertainment, it satisfied me.

Perhaps this is because my favorite movies are studio comedies of the 1930s and 40s. I like slapstick, quick patter, memorable character acting, and gossamer-thin stories. I like musical comedies, and the modern Hollywood blockbuster generally has the pacing of the Golden Age of musical comedy: an eminently-forgettable plot which only exists to string together the lavish, extended set pieces. Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow is no longer the revelation that he was four years ago; but it’s good to see him blink and mumble onto the screen again like it’s good to see Harpo Marx enter stage right, chasing girl. (But then those same cinéastes criticize Marx Brothers movies, which is the moment when despair prevails and all seems black: the others need Zeppo to counterbalance their lunacy, can’t you see that, you dullwitted thrillseekers?) Anyway, Bill Nighy’s squid-faced Davy Jones has expressions that remind me exactly of Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion, and I don’t think it’s entirely unintentional. He’s a villain, but he’s a pantomime villain.

I’m sympathetic to people who feel that they’re being pummelled into enjoying a movie, and I can understand, I suppose, the exhaustion that many reviewers claim; but (this may sound oxymoronic, but I can’t help that) I see very few movies, so something like this is less chaotic and noisy and exhausting than it would be, I imagine, if I spent every weekend under the glow of immense screens. Thank God I don’t.

Also, I’ve been in trilogy-mode for a while now, listening to the Lord of the Rings on my mp3 player for the past several weeks, so perhaps I’m more forgiving of a movie that wasn’t, after all, meant to stand too precisely on its own feet (the Two Towers is, after all, the worst of the three books — if it were possible to separate the three books like that); its second half comes next summer, and I’ll be interested still, I expect.

* * *

Hmm. And I find I’ve said almost nothing at all about the movie itself. Here’s what sticks in the mind:

  • Keira Knightley fancies herself an Actual Actress, after having overplayed Elizabeth Bennett as the weakest link in an otherwise lovable Pride & Prejudice. Still, she’s up to the slight demands of the screenplay, and is looking very tan and Ibiza’d by movie’s end.
  • Gosh, Orlando Bloom is skinny as he stomps up out of the ocean to the abandoned Black Pearl. That’s about as memorable as he gets. (Of course, this is the man who was upstaged by his makeup in Lord of the Rings.)
  • Shooting an undead monkey: never not funny.
  • Spectacular set design; some beautiful shots, often owing more to the National Geographic quality of actual landscapes than any skill on the part of the filmmakers; wonderful costuming and props. (I’m a still-decidedly-amateurish cartoonist: these are the things I have to fiddle with in my own piddling narratives.)
  • One genuinely creepy moment: the sailor pulling anxiously on a rope that does nothing, over and over again. Then the CGI kicks in, and it’s just a romp.
  • Hurtling over the cultural imperialism that bringing up cannibals (apparently imported from the Papua New Guinea region of the globe, if I’m any judge) might necessarily imply, by playing it all strictly for laughs.
  • The big reveal of the Kraken’s, uh, mouth. Someone said it was the most hideous male Freudian nightmare in the history of film, which I can see. But then Jack smiles so crookedly, and draws his sword so blithely. (The implication being, perhaps, that Ms. Knightley just found herself replaced?)
  • The three (later five) supporting-cast sailors. I always find myself more interested in the character actors than in the headlining ones (of course, here, Depp is a character actor too, profoundly so), and subconsciously counting heads after every peril and making sure the midget and Cotton's parrot came through okay made not the least part of my interest in the movie. (You can tell I’m listening to the Lord of the Rings: I’m still talking like fricking Gandalf.)
  • And the last five seconds of the film, which made up entirely for the dragginess that was unavoidable with a villain unable to chew scenery as effectively as one whose face is unobscured. That’s a spoiler, by the way. Go see the movie, as if you haven’t already.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Baron Corvo, “Why the Rose Is Red”

This week’s story needs some explaining. I have no explanation to give. Baron Corvo was a very strange writer who wrote very strange stories. He seems to have wanted to belong to the Oscar Wilde/Aubrey Beardsley decadent aesthetic, but he was socially unacceptable and in all ways too much of an eccentric. I can’t say whether this story’s strange mixture of cod-Catholic mythology, unsubtle homoeroticism, and typographical profusion is typical; it is, anyway, deliriously entertaining. It was found in the 1901 book In His Own Image.

Breakfast was ready, under the magnolia-tree. I like these late-spring breakfasts in the sun.

Guido and Ercole had executed a masterpiece in their simplicity, with three great bowls of beaten brass, one in the middle to support my book, one each at the opposite corners of the table, all filled with damask roses of the darkest purple, fresh, and breathing liquid odours as of cloves celestial! I gave the creatures compliments, and sat down to breakfast. Cocomeri ripieni, Port Salut, olives, perfumed oranges, pitch-flavoured wine, — delicious!

At the end, Guido and Ercole went away to fetch coffee. Toto, who had been shedding his city clothes, and getting his breakfast, came and stood by the left side of my table. I happened to reach for another mandarin, and I saw him with the corner of my eye.

Good gracious! The boy was livid, stiff and stark, convulsed with silent rage. I never saw such a fury. But, of course, I took no notice. I was going to have an emotion by and bye; and I became as demurely watchful as my yellow cat Annia.

When Guido and Ercole returned, I saw Toto’s right fist clench till the knuckles grew quite pale, and Guido let the coffee-pot fall onto the grass. Toto snarled, “A — po — plex — y,” in a turgid undertone.

I dislike imprecations, and I said, “Sh;” while Guido ran to the house for another pot of coffee.

While I was sipping it, and using a cigarette, I made the following secret observations:

(a) Guido, who is Toto’s very delicately slim and agile little brother of thirteen years, with the most beautiful white to his eyes like chrusoberul, stood on the right side of my table, turned to alabaster, looking wildly on the face of Toto, and with tears streaming down his cheeks;

(b) Ercole — a lusty bronze Roman with the visage of Iuvenis Octavianus — stood, a little behind and to the right side of Guido, presenting an image of horror of the unknown;

(c) and, across the table, Toto glared like — the witch’s head.

* * *

I went to take a look round my studio.

Toto followed. “Permission to forsake la sua eccellenza during ten minutes,” he asked. I nodded forward. He tore away like one frantick. From the terrace, I watched his tremendous legs stride headlong down the Via Livia to the city.

I played about for a little by myself and resolved to have a lazy hour doing nothing at all.

But here came a most shocking thing.

In the studio there is a large glass door which opens upon a little terrace, giving a lovely wide vista of the city below, then the Campagna, and beyond that the sea, fourteen miles away. At the side of the terrace a stair leads down into the garden.

Darkening this doorway, Toto towered on high, with the hair of Guido in his right hand, and the hair of Ercole in his left. He forced them down upon their knees, and they wept piteously, and antiphonally, they cried to me:

“V. Oh, pardon!”

“R. Pardon!”

“V. Ah, we did not know!”

“R. We did not know!”

“V. To la sua eccellenza, we wished to give pleasure!”

“R. To la sua eccellenza, we tried to give pleasure!”

“V. But it was our evil day!”

“R. If la sua eccellenza would only believe!”

“V. Oh, pardon!”

“R. Pardon!”

I became very angry. I am very cutting, in my rages. I said, “Go away, little sillies!”

They expected to be killed, I know. They were quite heart-broken, plainly. They got up and went away. Toto was for following, but I recalled him. There was a hideous bulge on his stomach. He had got some lump stowed away beneath his shirt at the waist.

“Beast,” I said, “what is the meaning of this? What have those rudikopaide done that you should make me such a scene?”

“Sir, they repent; and they ask for pardon.”

“Oh, yes! — pardon! — But for what crime? — They’ve broken something. — I know it! — ”

“No, sir. But for the insult.”

“Heaven be my aid and grant me final perseverance!” I cried, “what are you driving at?”

“The insult, sir; and they shall take their penance now,” he turned away, looking positively rhadamanthine.

“Toto! — Come back! — Don’t dare to move! — Here, go to the throne, and pose — like this!” I seized a little cast of the Hebe from Virinium in Carinthia and shoved it forward, musing over the inscription incised on the front of the right thigh, A. POPLICIVS. D. LANTIOC. TI. BARBIVS. Q. PL. TIBER.

Then I shut the doors and attended to the lighting of the model. He threw his vesture behind a screen, emerged, mounted the throne, considered the Hebe for a minute, undulated deliciously, and stiffened into the pose, — a horrid one, but one that served my purpose. I had my lion on a leash, and I began to fiddle with a charcoal stick on a bit of brown paper.

After ten minutes, I said, “Are you cold?”

Toto stirred not from his stony stillness; but his answering voice proceeded from a whisper to a roar, like this——

crescen . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . do
pp “No, sir:” — p “Hot:” — f “Awful:” — ff “Burning.”

“You have taken a fever, my lad,” I said; “driving over to the Campagna last night, I suppose.” I went and felt his flesh. That was normal: also, his pulse.

“No, sir; but the insult!”

“Look here Toto,” I said; “if you will drop your beastly elliptical Latin manner of leaving every important thing to my imagination, and will try to express yourself like an Englishman for once, you will improve my temper. Dash it all, boy, what do you mean?”

“Sir, the insult!”

“Per Cristo! What insult? Two words now!”

“Sir, in the pip of an apple — the Roses!”

“Well! And the Roses?”

“They were Red, sir! Oh!” (with another roar) “they shall bleed, — those boar-pigs, — they shall bleed!”

“Silence!” I cried. “Come here!”

He descended the throne, and came to me. Fauno Furibondo — that’s what he was! There was something of terrible in the boy. You could see his heart-beats. I looked upon him with disgust.

“Dress,” I said.

He retired behind the screen. I must chain this lion more securely.

I made him kneel at my feet; and I took his throat in my two hands.

“Now lend me both your ears,” I said. I saw attention concentrated in his eyes. “I think the Roses on my table to have been entirely exquisite. Simpaticissime! I am pleased with those Roses. Understand?”

He looked at me with unfeigned amazement; and, oh, how earnestly I watched the changes in his expression!

“I think Guido and Ercole to have very beautiful souls, or they could not have invented so beautiful a decoration for my table.”

He thought me guilty of mockery. I saw anger in his glance; and I throttled him a little.

“Pax!” I said. “I mean what I say. I am delighted with those Roses.”

Two emotions coursed processionally through his eyes. First, penitent appeal. Second, veneration.

“Tell me, Toto; what is that under your shirt?”

He put his hand into his bosom, and drew out a very nasty, coiled-up thing.

“What is it?’

“Sir, the sinew of a bullock.”

“Where did you get it?”

“Sir, I ran down to the butcher for it.”

“What do you intend to do with it?”

“Sir, I intend to flay the hides off Guido, my brother, and off Ercole of Rome, in order to appease la sua eccellenza who is so deeply wounded by vinegar-sons-of-wine that he has no words left wherewith to curse them.”

I throttled him again. “For putting Red Roses on my table?”

“Yes, sir.”

Without speaking, I looked long through the eyes into the soul of this amazing creature.

Then, I said, “Toto, I am a child; a baby; knowing nothing. I must have a teacher to make me understand. — What is the sin of Red Roses? Tell me?”

“Sir, it is the supreme insult, to offer Red Roses to an Englishman.”


“Sir, the Red Rose is stained with blood — the blood of Holy Innocents. Therefore, it is a badge of infamy.”

“Oh,” I said. “Very well. And you are going to flay Guido and Ercole?”

“I am going to flay Guido and Ercole.”

I released his throat.

“Toto mio,” I said; “what good will those kids be to me without their skins? I prefer to give them their penance myself.”

“Sir, if you will take that trouble, it will be better so. But, very humbly, I ask you to forgive them also.”

“Yes, I forgive them freely.” He bent down and kissed my ring. “Bring them to the anti-camera, now; and treat them very kindly. If you make them unhappy any more, I will kill you. Remember!”

* * *

Oh, such pathetick little abjects came in! Distressed ones, who, having innocently insulted the lord whom they adored, only wished to die; for they had forfeited his favour for ever; and their hearts were broken! What an emotion!

I made the three boys sit down on the stools. I was going to be impressive, and so I sat on the high chair. I said, “Guido and Ercole, you have offered me an insult: but you did it in innocence; and you are truly contrite. Is that so?”

“Oh, sir, yes!”

“Then, for your penance, you must promise to believe what I am going to tell you. Do you promise?”

“Oh, sir, yes!”

“Then listen. All through my life I have loved Red Roses. Therefore, you did not offend me by putting Red Roses on my table. But now I have learned that an Englishman ought to hate Red Roses, and not to love them. So I am converted, and you must never offer my any more red roses.”

“No, sir, never, sir!”

“Well, then, you are forgiven. And because I like you to be happy, we will all make an expedition to Velletri, to-morrow.”

“Oh, sir!”

“And, for his penance, Toto, who committed the sin of anger because he wishes me well, must tell us why the Red Rose is a badge of infamy.”

As though a tap had been turned on, Toto began to intone rhythmick cadences.

“When the Padre Eterno made the world, He resolved to plant a garden; and He sent one of the seven angels with a mete-yard of gold, to mark out a fine situation by the river-side, where were gentle hills and dales.

“He marked out this garden in the shape of a square, one thousand and five hundred miles each ay, enclosed by an impenetrable hawthorn bush, white and pink, with flowers and fragrance on the inside, and piercing thorns without. Round the four sides of the garden went this hawthorn bush, one hundred and seventy-three cubits high, and one hundred and seventy-three cubits deep.

“The Padre Eterno planted groves of trees, all in beautiful order: orange trees, and almond-trees, and apple-trees, and lemon-trees, and cherry-trees, with the blossoms always on the one side, for pleasure to sight and smell; and ripe fruit always on the other side for pleasure to the taste.

“The hills He crowned with pine-forests; and He decked their slopes with little olive-groves. Here were vineyards of white and purple grapes. There were palms and poplars by the brooks. Along the pools, He placed osiers and willow-trees and bulrushes for bordures: and He made great lawns of fine green grass as soft as the fur of cats, where the young Lord Adamo might rest under shady trees. Each lawn was surrounded by bushes of a different kind; and on each lawn were different kinds of trees and different kinds of flowers. One lawn was bordured by syringa-bushes and adorned with wall-flowers, and heliotrope, and golden-rod. Another lawn was bordured by blue hydrangea bushes, and studded with poppies and meadow-sweet. A third lawn was bordured by bushes of rosemary, and ornamented with southernwood and lilies; and there were white peacocks, and peacocks purple in their pride. Under the walnut-trees were hyacinths, under the sycamore-trees were primroses, under the mulberry-trees were asphodels, under the cedar-trees were forget-me-nots, under the chestnut-trees were daisies, under the oak-trees were violets. On the pools, great white lilies floated; and, at their marges, were iris and marigold, and moss.

“Oh, what a beautiful garden!

“Yet the Padre Eterno was not content. What He had done was very good, according to the Scripture; but it was not His best. He had not done His all: and He wished for one more flower to be the queen of all the garden. So, under the oak-trees, He planted a thorn; and He starred the thorn with a bloom having five petals, tender as wings of butterflies, white as the soul of a little child, and having a heart of purest gold.

“Then the Nine Quires of angels came singing through the garden; and, in a blossom of magnolia, they collected odours from the lily, and the violet, and the hyacinth, and thyme and wall-flower and orange-blossom and meadow-sweet and southernwood and rosemary. And the Padre Eterno poured the perfume from the magnolia-chalice over the new white flower, and called it the Rosa Mystica. He appointed the Sixth Quire of angels, that is to say, the Dominations, to guard and tend it night and day.

“These things having been done, the Padre Eterno put the young Lord Adamo into His garden. And, in order that he might not be alone, He made him sleep: and while he slept, He gently divided him into two pieces, a large one, and a small, but each piece alive by itself though belonging to the other. The large piece of the Lord Adamo was called Man; and the small piece was our Mother Eva, who is Woman. But Sathanas, who always goes against Domeniddio in everything, was very angry when he saw this; and he struggled with the Padre Eterno, to prevent Him from dividing the Lord Adamo. And so the pieces came in different shapes, being unevenly divided: there is more of man than of woman; and the one always longs for the other; for, until they are joined together, neither the man nor the woman is complete and perfect, as the Padre Eterno designed.

“That was in the first hour. Then came the business of the animals; and, when that was finished, the Lord Adamo and our Mother Eva walked in the beautiful garden, tasted the fruit, admired the flowers, and loved each the other well under the shade of trees.

“On the lawn of lilies there were two strange trees: the one a quince-tree which was called the Tree of Wisdom; the other a tree of blood-red pomegranates, which was called the Tree of Life. Who ate the fruit of one, knew all the wisdom that the world has ever known or shall know. Who ate the fruit of the other, became immortal like the gods. And the Padre Eterno had forbidden the Lord Adamo and our Mother Eva to touch those trees, though they were free to use all the rest of the garden at their will.

“At the fifth hour the sun was in his strength, and the Lord Adamo left our Mother Eva sleeping under the great quince-tree, and went down to the water-side for coolness.

“Sathanas saw his opportunity. He came into the garden shaped like a serpent covered with green scales, having the head and bosom of a woman, black as the pit. He coiled around the trunk of the quince-tree, and he whispered to our Mother Eva, sleeping, while she thought it was a dream, advising her to eat the quinces, and to gain wisdom.

“At the sixth hour the Lord Adamo came up from the water, cool and fresh. He could not see Sathanas, who was too cunning to let himself be caught by Man.

“But our Mother Eva rose up in her sleep, and she mounted on a coil which the serpent made for her, till she could reach the quinces in the tree. And, in her dream, she pluckd quinces, and she ate them; she gave quinces also to the Lord Adamo, saying that they would make him wise, and in his admiration, he ate them too.

“So, tempted and deceived by Sathanas, they disobeyed. Then, to the Lord Adamo and to our Mother Eva, came wisdom in an overwhelming torrent. Every good thing they had known before, and now they knew every bad thing as well, and they had much fear (for knowledge brings fear), thinking of the anger of the Padre Eterno when He should know their sin.

“They wandered through the garden, hand in hand, weeping, weighted with all the wisdom that all men have ever had or shall have. Also, they wept because they knew that they had stripped themselves of the favour of the Padre Eterno, and were naked and unarmed against Sathanas.

“While they wandered weeping, the sun began to lose his power, and at the seventh hour the Lord Adamo and our Mother Eva found themselves upon the lawn of lilies. But what a change! What ruin! And what horror! For the peacocks had broken all the snow-white lily-blooms, and trampled down their slender graceful stems, and all the serpent’s trail was strewn with violets crushed and dead.

“Suddenly soft music from a distance floated through the trees, and the Lord Adamo and our Mother Eva shivered with fear, knowing the Padre Eterno to be walking in the garden, and they hid themselves in the bushes of rosemary.

“Ah! who can hide from the Signor Iddio Onnisciente? Then, for their penance, the Padre Eterno drove the Lord Adamo and our Mother Eva out into the wicked world, and the garden of paradise faded like a dream.

“But the angels of the Sixth Quire kneeled down and confessed, saying, ‘O Padre Celeste e Domeniddio, we have sinned, and yet we know not how, for the Rose which You deigned to give into our care has changed, — changed though we never ceased to watch it, — white were all its flowers, white as the soul of a little child, and behold, now Maestà, some are as red as blood.”

“The Padre Eterno answered: ‘XXXO Dominations, to whose charge We have given the Rose, you have no blame. Sathanas has stained Our garden with Sin. For, by disobedience, Man has gained wisdom, and wisdom brings Sin. And there shall be many nations of the Man: they will be wise, and they will sin. And the nations will separate themselves through the sin of envy; and each nation will mark itself by some sign through the sin of Pride. One nation will wear the violet for its sign; and the violets will be crushed by the serpent of deceit. Another nation will wear the lilies for its sign; and the peacocks of pride will trample down the lilies of humility. And yet another nation will wear the Rose for its sign; and cruelty will stain the wearers of the Rose. Strong shall they be, and some strong without mercy or pity. They will live on the lives of the weak, or feeble, whom they make their slaves; they will stain the whiteness of the Rose with the blood of innocents. Yet, not all will sin, for though some will choose the evil, more will choose the good, and there remain White Roses for the nation which We shall choose to crown with glory and honour, and to which we shall give dominion over the works of Our Hands, Benedicat vos Omnipotens Deus XXX Pater XXX et Filius XXX et Spiritus Sanctus.

“Then the garden of paradise was carried up to heaven, on the wings of the Nine Quires of Angels. And, once in the life of every man an angel of the Sixth Quire brings to him a White Rose for remembrance, that the mystery of its fragrant purity may remind him of that lost garden where the gods are waiting for him, if he wills it to come.1

1 — Toto never knew, and never shall know, that the Red Rose is the badge of the Duchy of Lancaster — a duchy infested by as naturally unkind a race of people as the Spaniards. But I try to have a due regard for the fitness of things, and, in my opinion, the Badge of the Red Rose suits the Duchy of Lancaster quite well. I refrain from recording personal experiences, and content myself with the remark that, until a few years ago, Lancashire Cotton Mills were run by night as well as by day, two sets of children being employed, and forced to slave their little lives out in terror of the overlooker’s cane. These innocents were pauper children, imported by contract from the West and South of England, and they only survived amid their appalling surroundings for an average space of five years (cf. evidence of Robert Owen before Royal Commission of 1817). When I reflect that, while the world rang with shouts of English triumph after Waterloo, a Lancastrian section of the House of Commons was found to oppose Bills — introduced by Sir Robert Peel, for preventing children, under nine years of age, from working more than seventy-four hours each week — I feel very thankful that the White Rose — the pure prime-rose, for example — is the Rose of England, and not the infamous Local Rose of Lancaster, dyed Red with the Blood of Innocents, victims of minotaur-manufacturers.