C’est moi, c’est moi, c’est moi!
Je suis la Mandragore!
La file des beaux jours qui s’éveille à l’aurore —
Et qui chante pour toi!
IN the days beyond compare and before the Judgments, a genius called Graydon foresaw that the advance of education and the standard of living would submerge all mind-marks in one mudrush of standardised reading-matter, and so created the Fictional Supply Syndicate to meet the demand.
Since a few days’ work for him brought them more money than a week’s elsewhere, he drew many young men — some now eminent — into his employ. He bade them keep their eyes on the Sixpenny Dream Book, the Army and Navy Stores Catalogue (this for backgrounds and furniture as they changed), and The Hearthstone Friend, a weekly publication which specialised unrivalledly in the domestic emotions. Yet, even so, youth would not be denied, and some of the collaborated love-talk in ‘Passion Hath Peril,’ and ‘Ena’s Lost Lovers,’ and the account of the murder of the Earl in ‘The Wickwire Tragedies’— to name but a few masterpieces now never mentioned for fear of blackmail — was as good as anything to which their authors signed their real names in more distinguished years.
Among the young ravens driven to roost awhile on Graydon’s ark was James Andrew Manallace — a darkish, slow northerner of the type that does not ignite, but must be detonated. Given written or verbal outlines of a plot, he was useless; but, with a half-dozen pictures round which to write his tale, he could astonish.
And he adored that woman who afterwards became the mother of Vidal Benzaquen,[*] and who suffered and died because she loved one unworthy. There was, also, among the company a mannered, bellied person called Alured Castorley, who talked and wrote about ‘Bohemia,’ but was always afraid of being ‘compromised’ by the weekly suppers at Neminaka’s Cafes in Hestern Square, where the Syndicate work was apportioned, and where everyone looked out for himself. He, too, for a time, had loved Vidal’s mother, in his own way.
[* ‘The Village that voted the Earth was Flat.’ A Diversity of Creatures.]
Now, one Saturday at Neminaka’s, Graydon, who had given Manallace a sheaf of prints — torn from an extinct children’s book called Philippa’s Queen — on which to improvise, asked for results. Manallace went down into his ulster-pocket, hesitated a moment, and said the stuff had turned into poetry on his hands.
‘That’s what it isn’t,’ the boy retorted. ‘It’s rather good.’
‘Then it’s no use to us.’ Graydon laughed. ‘Have you brought back the cuts?’
Manallace handed them over. There was a castle in the series; a knight or so in armour; an old lady in a horned head-dress; a young ditto; a very obvious Hebrew; a clerk, with pen and inkhorn, checking wine-barrels on a wharf; and a Crusader. On the back of one of the prints was a note, ‘If he doesn’t want to go, why can’t he be captured and held to ransom?’ Graydon asked what it all meant.
‘I don’t know yet. A comic opera, perhaps,’ said Manallace.
Graydon, who seldom wasted time, passed the cuts on to someone else, and advanced Manallace a couple of sovereigns to carry on with, as usual; at which Castorley was angry and would have said something unpleasant but was suppressed. Half-way through supper, Castorley told the company that a relative had died and left him an independence; and that he now withdrew from ‘hackwork’ to follow ‘Literature.’ Generally, the Syndicate rejoiced in a comrade’s good fortune, but Castorley had gifts of waking dislike. So the news was received with a vote of thanks, and he went out before the end, and, it was said, proposed to ‘Dal Benzaquen’s mother, who refused him. He did not come back. Manallace, who had arrived a little exalted, got so drunk before midnight that a man had to stay and see him home. But liquor never touched him above the belt, and when he had slept awhile, he recited to the gas-chandelier the poetry he had made out of the pictures; said that, on second thoughts, he would convert it into comic opera; deplored the Upas-tree influence of Gilbert and Sullivan; sang somewhat to illustrate his point; and — after words, by the way, with a negress in yellow satin — was steered to his rooms.
In the course of a few years, Graydon’s foresight and genius were rewarded. The public began to read and reason upon higher planes, and the Syndicate grew rich. Later still, people demanded of their printed matter what they expected in their clothing and furniture. So, precisely as the three guinea hand-bag is followed in three weeks by its thirteen and sevenpence ha’penny, indistinguishable sister, they enjoyed perfect synthetic substitutes for Plot, Sentiment, and Emotion. Graydon died before the Cinemacaption school came in, but he left his widow twenty-seven thousand pounds.
Manallace made a reputation, and, more important, money for Vidal’s mother when her husband ran away and the first symptoms of her paralysis showed. His line was the jocundly-sentimental Wardour Street brand of adventure, told in a style that exactly met, but never exceeded, every expectation.
As he once said when urged to ‘write a real book’: ‘I’ve got my label, and I’m not going to chew it off. If you save people thinking, you can do anything with ’em.’ His output apart, he was genuinely a man of letters. He rented a small cottage in the country and economised on everything, except the care and charges of Vidal’s mother.
Castorley flew higher. When his legacy freed him from ‘hackwork,’ he became first a critic — in which calling he loyally scalped all his old associates as they came up — and then looked for some speciality. Having found it (Chaucer was the prey), he consolidated his position before he occupied it, by his careful speech, his cultivated bearing, and the whispered words of his friends whom he, too, had saved the trouble of thinking. It followed that, when he published his first serious articles on Chaucer, all the world which is interested in Chaucer said: ‘This is an authority.’ But he was no impostor. He learned and knew his poet and his age; and in a month-long dogfight in an austere literary weekly, met and mangled a recognised Chaucer expert of the day. He also, ‘for old sake’s sake,’ as he wrote to a friend, went out of his way to review one of Manallace’s books with an intimacy of unclean deduction (this was before the days of Freud) which long stood as a record. Some member of the extinct Syndicate took occasion to ask him if he would — for old sake’s sake — help Vidal’s mother to a new treatment. He answered that he had ‘known the lady very slightly and the calls on his purse were so heavy that,’ etc. The writer showed the letter to Manallace, who said he was glad Castorley hadn’t interfered. Vidal’s mother was then wholly paralysed. Only her eyes could move, and those always looked for the husband who had left her. She died thus in Manallace’s arms in April of the first year of the War.
During the War he and Castorley worked as some sort of departmental dishwashers in the Office of Co-ordinated Supervisals. Here Manallace came to know Castorley again. Castorley, having a sweet tooth, cadged lumps of sugar for his tea from a typist, and when she took to giving them to a younger man, arranged that she should be reported for smoking in unauthorised apartments. Manallace possessed himself of every detail of the affair, as compensation for the review of his book. Then there came a night when, waiting for a big air-raid, the two men had talked humanly, and Manallace spoke of Vidal’s mother. Castorley said something in reply, and from that hour — as was learned several years later — Manallace’s real life-work and interests began.
The War over, Castorley set about to make himself Supreme Pontiff on Chaucer by methods not far removed from the employment of poison-gas. The English Pope was silent, through private griefs, and influenza had carried off the learned Hun who claimed continental allegiance. Thus Castorley crowed unchallenged from Upsala to Seville, while Manallace went back to his cottage with the photo of Vidal’s mother over the mantelpiece. She seemed to have emptied out his life, and left him only fleeting interests in trifles. His private diversions were experiments of uncertain outcome, which, he said, rested him after a day’s gadzooking and vitalstapping. I found him, for instance, one week-end, in his toolshed-scullery, boiling a brew of slimy barks which were, if mixed with oak-galls, vitriol and wine, to become an ink-powder. We boiled it till the Monday, and it turned into an adhesive stronger than birdlime, and entangled us both.
At other times, he would carry me off, once in a few weeks, to sit at Castorley’s feet, and hear him talk about Chaucer. Castorley’s voice, bad enough in youth, when it could be shouted down, had, with culture and tact, grown almost insupportable. His mannerisms, too, had multiplied and set. He minced and mouthed, postured and chewed his words throughout those terrible evenings; and poisoned not only Chaucer, but every shred of English literature which he used to embellish him. He was shameless, too, as regarded self-advertisement and ‘recognition’— weaving elaborate intrigues; forming petty friendships and confederacies, to be dissolved next week in favour of more promising alliances; fawning, snubbing, lecturing, organising and lying as unrestingly as a politician, in chase of the Knighthood due not to him (he always called on his Maker to forbid such a thought) but as tribute to Chaucer. Yet, sometimes, he could break from his obsession and prove how a man’s work will try to save the soul of him. He would tell us charmingly of copyists of the fifteenth century in England and the Low Countries, who had multiplied the Chaucer MSS., of which there remained — he gave us the exact number — and how each scribe could by him (and, he implied, by him alone) be distinguished from every other by some peculiarity of letter-formation, spacing or like trick of pen-work; and how he could fix the dates of their work within five years. Sometimes he would give us an hour of really interesting stuff and then return to his overdue ‘recognition.’ The changes sickened me, but Manallace defended him, as a master in his own line who had revealed Chaucer to at least one grateful soul.
This, as far as I remembered, was the autumn when Manallace holidayed in the Shetlands or the Faroes, and came back with a stone ‘quern’— a hand corn-grinder. He said it interested him from the ethnological standpoint. His whim lasted till next harvest, and was followed by a religious spasm which, naturally, translated itself into literature. He showed me a battered and mutilated Vulgate of 1485, patched up the back with bits of legal parchments, which he had bought for thirty-five shillings. Some monk’s attempt to rubricate chapter-initials had caught, it seemed, his forlorn fancy, and he dabbled in shells of gold and silver paint for weeks.
That also faded out, and he went to the Continent to get local colour for a love-story, about Alva and the Dutch, and the next year I saw practically nothing of him. This released me from seeing much of Castorley, but, at intervals, I would go there to dine with him, when his wife — an unappetising, ash-coloured woman — made no secret that his friends wearied her almost as much as he did. But at a later meeting, not long after Manallace had finished his Low Countries’ novel, I found Castorley charged to bursting-point with triumph and high information hardly withheld. He confided to me that a time was at hand when great matters would be made plain, and ‘recognition’ would be inevitable. I assumed, naturally, that there was fresh scandal or heresy afoot in Chaucer circles, and kept my curiosity within bounds.
In time, New York cabled that a fragment of a hitherto unknown Canterbury Tale lay safe in the steel-walled vaults of the seven-million-dollar Sunnapia Collection. It was news on an international scale — the New World exultant — the Old deploring the ‘burden of British taxation which drove such treasures, etc.,’ and the lighterminded journals disporting themselves according to their publics; for ‘our Dan,’ as one earnest Sunday editor observed, ‘lies closer to the national heart than we wot of.’ Common decency made me call on Castorley, who, to my surprise, had not yet descended into the arena. I found him, made young again by joy, deep in just-passed proofs.
Yes, he said, it was all true. He had, of course, been in it from the first. There had been found one hundred and seven new lines of Chaucer tacked on to an abridged end of The Persone’s Tale, the whole the work of Abraham Mentzius, better known as Mentzel of Antwerp (1388 — 1438/9)— I might remember he had talked about him — whose distinguishing peculiarities were a certain Byzantine formation of his g’s, the use of a ‘sickle-slanted’ reed-pen, which cut into the vellum at certain letters; and, above all, a tendency to spell English words on Dutch lines, whereof the manuscript carried one convincing proof. For instance (he wrote it out for me), a girl praying against an undesired marriage, says:—
‘Ah Jesu–Moder, pitie my oe peyne.
Daiespringe mishandeelt cometh nat agayne.’
Would I, please, note the spelling of ‘mishandeelt’? Stark Dutch and Mentzel’s besetting sin! But in his position one took nothing for granted. The page had been part of the stiffening of the side of an old Bible, bought in a parcel by Dredd, the big dealer, because it had some rubricated chapter-initials, and by Dredd shipped, with a consignment of similar odds and ends, to the Sunnapia Collection, where they were making a glass-cased exhibit of the whole history of illumination and did not care how many books they gutted for that purpose. There, someone who noticed a crack in the back of the volume had unearthed it. He went on: ‘They didn’t know what to make of the thing at first. But they knew about me! They kept quiet till I’d been consulted. You might have noticed I was out of England for three months.
‘I was over there, of course. It was what is called a “spoil”— a page Mentzel had spoiled with his Dutch spelling — I expect he had had the English dictated to him — then had evidently used the vellum for trying out his reeds; and then, I suppose, had put it away. The “spoil” had been doubled, pasted together, and slipped in as stiffening to the old book-cover. I had it steamed open, and analysed the wash. It gave the flour-grains in the paste-coarse, because of the old millstone — and there were traces of the grit itself. What? Oh, possibly a handmill of Mentzel’s own time. He may have doubled the spoilt page and used it for part of a pad to steady wood-cuts on. It may have knocked about his workshop for years. That, indeed, is practically certain because a beginner from the Low Countries has tried his reed on a few lines of some monkish hymn — not a bad lilt tho’— which must have been common form. Oh yes, the page may have been used in other books before it was used for the Vulgate. That doesn’t matter, but this does. Listen! I took a wash, for analysis, from a blot in one corner — that would be after Mentzel had given up trying to make a possible page of it, and had grown careless — and I got the actual ink of the period! It’s a practically eternal stuff compounded on — I’ve forgotten his name for the minute — the scribe at Bury St. Edmunds, of course — hawthorn bark and wine. Anyhow, on his formula. That wouldn’t interest you either, but, taken with all the other testimony, it clinches the thing. (You’ll see it all in my Statement to the Press on Monday.) Overwhelming, isn’t it?’
‘Overwhelming,’ I said, with sincerity. ‘Tell me what the tale was about, though. That’s more in my line.’
‘I know it; but I have to be equipped on all sides. The verses are relatively easy for one to pronounce on. The freshness, the fun, the humanity, the fragrance of it all, cries — no, shouts — itself as Dan’s work. Why “Daiespringe mishandled” alone stamps it from Dan’s mint. Plangent as doom, my dear boy — plangent as doom! It’s all in my Statement. Well, substantially, the fragment deals with a girl whose parents wish her to marry an elderly suitor. The mother isn’t so keen on it, but the father, an old Knight, is. The girl, of course, is in love with a younger and a poorer man. Common form? Granted. Then the father, who doesn’t in the least want to, is ordered off to a Crusade and, by way of passing on the kick, as we used to say during the War, orders the girl to be kept in duresse till his return or her consent to the old suitor. Common form, again? Quite so. That’s too much for her mother. She reminds the old Knight of his age and infirmities, and the discomforts of Crusading. Are you sure I’m not boring you?’
‘Not at all,’ I said, though time had begun to whirl backward through my brain to a red-velvet, pomatum-scented side-room at Neminaka’s and Manallace’s set face intoning to the gas.
‘You’ll read it all in my Statement next week. The sum is that the old lady tells him of a certain Knight-adventurer on the French coast, who, for a consideration, waylays Knights who don’t relish crusading and holds them to impossible ransoms till the trooping-season is over, or they are returned sick. He keeps a ship in the Channel to pick ’em up and transfers his birds to his castle ashore, where he has a reputation for doing ’em well. As the old lady points out:
‘And if perchance thou fall into his honde
By God how canstow ride to Holilonde?’
‘You see? Modern in essence as Gilbert and Sullivan, but handled as only Dan could! And she reminds him that “Honour and olde bones” parted company long ago. He makes one splendid appeal for the spirit of chivalry:
Let all men change as Fortune may send.
But Knighthood beareth service to the end.
and then, of course, he gives in
For what his woman willeth to be don
Her manne must or wauken Hell anon.
‘Then she hints that the daughter’s young lover, who is in the Bordeaux wine-trade, could open negotiations for a kidnapping without compromising him. And then that careless brute Mentzel spoils his page and chucks it! But there’s enough to show what’s going to happen. You’ll see it all in my Statement. Was there ever anything in literary finds to hold a candle to it? . . . And they give grocers Knighthoods for selling cheese!’
I went away before he could get into his stride on that course. I wanted to think, and to see Manallace. But I waited till Castorley’s Statement came out. He had left himself no loophole. And when, a little later, his (nominally the Sunnapia people’s) ‘scientific’ account of their analyses and tests appeared, criticism ceased, and some journals began to demand ‘public recognition.’ Manallace wrote me on this subject, and I went down to his cottage, where he at once asked me to sign a Memorial on Castorley’s behalf. With luck, he said, we might get him a K.B.E. in the next Honours List. Had I read the Statement?
‘I have,’ I replied. ‘But I want to ask you something first. Do you remember the night you got drunk at Neminaka’s, and I stayed behind to look after you?’
‘Oh, that time,’ said he, pondering. ‘Wait a minute! I remember Graydon advancing me two quid. He was a generous paymaster. And I remember — now, who the devil rolled me under the sofa — and what for?’
‘We all did,’ I replied. ‘You wanted to read us what you’d written to those Chaucer cuts.’
‘I don’t remember that. No! I don’t remember anything after the sofa-episode . . . You always said that you took me home — didn’t you?’
‘I did, and you told Kentucky Kate outside the old Empire that you had been faithful, Cynara, in your fashion.’
‘Did I?’ said he. ‘My God! Well, I suppose I have.’ He stared into the fire. ‘What else?’
‘Before we left Neminaka’s you recited me what you had made out of the cuts — the whole tale! So — you see?’
‘Ye-es.’ He nodded. ‘What are you going to do about it?’
‘What are you?’
‘I’m going to help him get his Knighthood — first.’
‘I’ll tell you what he said about ‘Dal’s mother — the night there was that air-raid on the offices.’
He told it.
‘That’s why,’ he said. ‘Am I justified?’
He seemed to me entirely so.
‘But after he gets his Knighthood?’ I went on.
‘That depends. There are several things I can think of. It interests me.’
‘Good Heavens! I’ve always imagined you a man without interests.’
‘So I was. I owe my interests to Castorley. He gave me every one of ’em except the tale itself.’
‘How did that come?’
‘Something in those ghastly cuts touched off something in me — a sort of possession, I suppose. I was in love too. No wonder I got drunk that night. I’d been Chaucer for a week! Then I thought the notion might make a comic opera. But Gilbert and Sullivan were too strong.’
‘So I remember you told me at the time.’
‘I kept it by me, and it made me interested in Chaucer — philologically and so on. I worked on it on those lines for years. There wasn’t a flaw in the wording even in ‘14. I hardly had to touch it after that.’
‘Did you ever tell it to anyone except me?’
‘No, only ‘Dal’s mother — when she could listen to anything — to put her to sleep. But when Castorley said — what he did about her, I thought I might use it. ‘Twasn’t difficult. He taught me. D’you remember my birdlime experiments, and the stuff on our hands? I’d been trying to get that ink for more than a year. Castorley told me where I’d find the formula. And your falling over the quern, too?’
‘That accounted for the stone-dust under the microscope?’
‘Yes. I grew the wheat in the garden here, and ground it myself. Castorley gave me Mentzel complete. He put me on to an MS. in the British Museum which he said was the finest sample of his work. I copied his “Byzantine g’s” for months.’
‘And what’s a “sickle-slanted” pen?’ I asked.
‘You nick one edge of your reed till it drags and scratches on the curves of the letters. Castorley told me about Mentzel’s spacing and margining. I only had to get the hang of his script.’
‘How long did that take you?’
‘On and off — some years. I was too ambitious at first — I wanted to give the whole poem. That would have been risky. Then Castorley told me about spoiled pages and I took the hint. I spelt “Dayspring mishandeelt” Mentzel’s way — to make sure of him. It’s not a bad couplet in itself. Did you see how he admires the “plangency” of it?’
‘Never mind him. Go on!’ I said.
He did. Castorley had been his unfailing guide throughout, specifying in minutest detail every trap to be set later for his own feet. The actual vellum was an Antwerp find, and its introduction into the cover of the Vulgate was begun after a long course of amateur bookbinding. At last, he bedded it under pieces of an old deed, and a printed page (1686) of Horace’s Odes, legitimately used for repairs by different owners in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; and at the last moment, to meet Castorley’s theory that spoiled pages were used in workshops by beginners, he had written a few Latin words in fifteenth century script the Statement gave the exact date — across an open part of the fragment. The thing ran: ‘Illa alma Mater ecca, secum afferens me acceptum. Nicolaus Atrib.’ The disposal of the thing was easiest of all. He had merely hung about Dredd’s dark bookshop of fifteen rooms, where he was well known, occasionally buying but generally browsing, till, one day, Dredd Senior showed him a case of cheap black-letter stuff, English and Continental — being packed for the Sunnapia people — into which Manallace tucked his contribution, taking care to wrench the back enough to give a lead to an earnest seeker.
‘And then?’ I demanded.
‘After six months or so Castorley sent for me. Sunnapia had found it, and as Dredd had missed it, and there was no money-motive sticking out, they were half convinced it was genuine from the start. But they invited him over. He conferred with their experts, and suggested the scientific tests. I put that into his head, before he sailed. That’s all. And now, will you sign our Memorial?’
I signed. Before we had finished hawking it round there was a host of influential names to help us, as well as the impetus of all the literary discussion which arose over every detail of the glorious trove. The upshot was a K.B.E.[*] for Castorley in the next Honours List; and Lady Castorley, her cards duly printed, called on friends that same afternoon.
[* Officially it was on account of his good work in the Departmental of Co-ordinated Supervisals, but all true lovers of literature knew the real reason, and told the papers so.]
Manallace invited me to come with him, a day or so later, to convey our pleasure and satisfaction to them both. We were rewarded by the sight of a man relaxed and ungirt — not to say wallowing naked — on the crest of Success. He assured us that ‘The Title’ should not make any difference to our future relations, seeing it was in no sense personal, but, as he had often said, a tribute to Chaucer; ‘and, after all,’ he pointed out, with a glance at the mirror over the mantelpiece, ‘Chaucer was the prototype of the “veray parfit gentil Knight” of the British Empire so far as that then existed.’
On the way back, Manallace told me he was considering either an unheralded revelation in the baser Press which should bring Castorley’s reputation about his own ears some breakfast-time, or a private conversation, when he would make clear to Castorley that he must now back the forgery as long as he lived, under threat of Manallace’s betraying it if he flinched.
He favoured the second plan. ‘If I pull the string of the shower-bath in the papers,’ he said, ‘Castorley might go off his veray parfit gentil nut. I want to keep his intellect.’
‘What about your own position? The forgery doesn’t matter so much. But if you tell this you’ll kill him,’ I said.
‘I intend that. Oh — my position? I’ve been dead since — April, Fourteen, it was. But there’s no hurry. What was it she was saying to you just as we left?’
‘She told me how much your sympathy and understanding had meant to him. She said she thought that even Sir Alured did not realise the full extent of his obligations to you.’
‘She’s right, but I don’t like her putting it that way.’
‘It’s only common form — as Castorley’s always saying.’
‘Not with her. She can hear a man think.’
‘She never struck me in that light.’
‘You aren’t playing against her.’
‘‘Guilty conscience, Manallace?’
‘H’m! I wonder. Mine or hers? I wish she hadn’t said that. “More even than he realises it.” I won’t call again for awhile.’
He kept away till we read that Sir Alured, owing to slight indisposition, had been unable to attend a dinner given in his honour.
Inquiries brought word that it was but natural reaction, after strain, which, for the moment, took the form of nervous dyspepsia, and he would be glad to see Manallace at any time. Manallace reported him as rather pulled and drawn, but full of his new life and position, and proud that his efforts should have martyred him so much. He was going to collect, collate, and expand all his pronouncements and inferences into one authoritative volume.
‘I must make an effort of my own,’ said Manallace. ‘I’ve collected nearly all his stuff about the Find that has appeared in the papers, and he’s promised me everything that’s missing. I’m going to help him. It will be a new interest.’
‘How will you treat it?’ I asked.
‘I expect I shall quote his deductions on the evidence, and parallel ’em with my experiments — the ink and the paste and the rest of it. It ought to be rather interesting.’
‘But even then there will only be your word. It’s hard to catch up with an established lie,’ I said. ‘Especially when you’ve started it yourself.’
He laughed. ‘I’ve arranged for that — in case anything happens to me. Do you remember the “Monkish Hymn”?’
‘Oh yes! There’s quite a literature about it already.’
‘Well, you write those ten words above each other,[*] and read down the first and second letters of ’em; and see what you get. My Bank has the formula.’
He wrapped himself lovingly and leisurely round his new task, and Castorley was as good as his word in giving him help. The two practically collaborated, for Manallace suggested that all Castorley’s strictly scientific evidence should be in one place, with his deductions and dithyrambs as appendices. He assured him that the public would prefer this arrangement, and, after grave consideration, Castorley agreed.
‘That’s better,’ said Manallace to me. ‘Now I sha’n’t have so many hiatuses in my extracts. Dots always give the reader the idea you aren’t dealing fairly with your man. I shall merely quote him solid, and rip him up, proof for proof, and date for date, in parallel columns. His book’s taking more out of him than I like, though. He’s been doubled up twice with tummy attacks since I’ve worked with him. And he’s just the sort of flatulent beast who may go down with appendicitis.’
We learned before long that the attacks were due to gall-stones, which would necessitate an operation. Castorley bore the blow very well. He had full confidence in his surgeon, an old friend of theirs; great faith in his own constitution; a strong conviction that nothing would happen to him till the book was finished, and, above all, the Will to Live.
He dwelt on these assets with a voice at times a little out of pitch and eyes brighter than usual beside a slightly-sharpening nose.
I had only met Gleeag, the surgeon, once or twice at Castorley’s house, but had always heard him spoken of as a most capable man. He told Castorley that his trouble was the price exacted, in some shape or other, from all who had served their country; and that, measured in units of strain, Castorley had practically been at the front through those three years he had served in the Office of Co-ordinated Supervisals. However, the thing had been taken betimes, and in a few weeks he would worry no more about it.
‘But suppose he dies?’ I suggested to Manallace.
‘He won’t. I’ve been talking to Gleeag. He says he’s all right.’
‘Wouldn’t Gleeag’s talk be common form?’
‘I wish you hadn’t said that. But, surely, Gleeag wouldn’t have the face to play with me — or her.’
‘Why not? I expect it’s been done before.’ But Manallace insisted that, in this case, it would be impossible.
The operation was a success and, some weeks later, Castorley began to recast the arrangement and most of the material of his book. ‘Let me have my way,’ he said, when Manallace protested. ‘They are making too much of a baby of me. I really don’t need Gleeag looking in every day now.’ But Lady Castorley told us that he required careful watching. His heart had felt the strain, and fret or disappointment of any kind must be avoided. ‘Even,’ she turned to Manallace, ‘though you know ever so much better how his book should be arranged than he does himself.’
‘But really,’ Manallace began. ‘I’m very careful not to fuss —’
She shook her finger at him playfully. ‘You don’t think you do; but, remember, he tells me everything that you tell him, just the same as he told me everything that he used to tell you. Oh, I don’t mean the things that men talk about. I mean about his Chaucer.’
‘I didn’t realise that,’ said Manallace, weakly.
‘I thought you didn’t. He never spares me anything; but I don’t mind,’ she replied with a laugh, and went off to Gleeag, who was paying his daily visit. Gleeag said he had no objection to Manallace working with Castorley on the book for a given time — say, twice a week — but supported Lady Castorley’s demand that he should not be over-taxed in what she called ‘the sacred hours.’ The man grew more and more difficult to work with, and the little check he had heretofore set on his self-praise went altogether.
‘He says there has never been anything in the History of Letters to compare with it,’ Manallace groaned. ‘He wants now to inscribe — he never dedicates, you know — inscribe it to me, as his “most valued assistant.” The devil of it is that she backs him up in getting it out soon. Why? How much do you think she knows?’
‘Why should she know anything at all?’
‘You heard her say he had told her everything that he had told me about Chaucer? (I wish she hadn’t said that!) If she puts two and two together, she can’t help seeing that every one of his notions and theories has been played up to. But then — but then . . . Why is she trying to hurry publication? She talks about me fretting him. She’s at him, all the time, to be quick.’
Castorley must have over-worked, for, after a couple of months, he complained of a stitch in his right side, which Gleeag said was a slight sequel, a little incident of the operation. It threw him back awhile, but he returned to his work undefeated.
The book was due in the autumn. Summer was passing, and his publisher urgent, and — he said to me, when after a longish interval I called — Manallace had chosen this time, of all, to take a holiday. He was not pleased with Manallace, once his indefatigable aide, but now dilatory, and full of time-wasting objections. Lady Castorley had noticed it, too.
Meantime, with Lady Castorley’s help, he himself was doing the best he could to expedite the book; but Manallace had mislaid (did I think through jealousy?) some essential stuff which had been dictated to him. And Lady Castorley wrote Manallace, who had been delayed by a slight motor accident abroad, that the fret of waiting was prejudicial to her husband’s health. Manallace, on his return from the Continent, showed me that letter.
‘He has fretted a little, I believe,’ I said.
Manallace shuddered. ‘If I stay abroad, I’m helping to kill him. If I help him to hurry up the book, I’m expected to kill him. She knows,’ he said.
‘You’re mad. You’ve got this thing on the brain.’
‘I have not! Look here! You remember that Gleeag gave me from four to six, twice a week, to work with him. She called them the “sacred hours.” You heard her? Well, they are! They are Gleeag’s and hers. But she’s so infernally plain, and I’m such a fool, it took me weeks to find it out.’
‘That’s their affair,’ I answered. ‘It doesn’t prove she knows anything about the Chaucer.’
‘She does! He told her everything that he had told me when I was pumping him, all those years. She put two and two together when the thing came out. She saw exactly how I had set my traps. I know it! She’s been trying to make me admit it.’
‘What did you do?’
‘‘Didn’t understand what she was driving at, of course. And then she asked Gleeag, before me, if he didn’t think the delay over the book was fretting Sir Alured. He didn’t think so. He said getting it out might deprive him of an interest. He had that much decency. She’s the devil!’
‘What do you suppose is her game, then?’
‘If Castorley knows he’s been had, it’ll kill him. She’s at me all the time, indirectly, to let it out. I’ve told you she wants to make it a sort of joke between us. Gleeag’s willing to wait. He knows Castorley’s a dead man. It slips out when they talk. They say “He was,” not “He is.” Both of ’em know it. But she wants him finished sooner.’
‘I don’t believe it. What are you going to do?’
‘What can I? I’m not going to have him killed, though.’
Manlike, he invented compromises whereby Castorley might be lured up by-paths of interest, to delay publication. This was not a success. As autumn advanced Castorley fretted more, and suffered from returns of his distressing colics. At last, Gleeag told him that he thought they might be due to an overlooked gallstone working down. A second comparatively trivial operation would eliminate the bother once and for all. If Castorley cared for another opinion, Gleeag named a surgeon of eminence. ‘And then,’ said he, cheerily, ‘the two of us can talk you over.’ Castorley did not want to be talked over. He was oppressed by pains in his side, which, at first, had yielded to the liver-tonics Gleeag prescribed; but now they stayed — like a toothache — behind everything. He felt most at ease in his bedroom-study, with his proofs round him. If he had more pain than he could stand, he would consider the second operation. Meantime Manallace — ‘the meticulous Manallace,’ he called him — agreed with him in thinking that the Mentzel page-facsimile, done by the Sunnapia Library, was not quite good enough for the great book, and the Sunnapia people were, very decently, having it re-processed. This would hold things back till early spring, which had its advantages, for he could run a fresh eye over all in the interval.
One gathered these news in the course of stray visits as the days shortened. He insisted on Manallace keeping to the ‘sacred hours,’ and Manallace insisted on my accompanying him when possible. On these occasions he and Castorley would confer apart for half an hour or so, while I listened to an unendurable clock in the drawing-room. Then I would join them and help wear out the rest of the time, while Castorley rambled. His speech, now, was often clouded and uncertain — the result of the ‘liver-tonics’; and his face came to look like old vellum.
It was a few days after Christmas — the operation had been postponed till the following Friday — that we called together. She met us with word that Sir Alured had picked up an irritating little winter cough, due to a cold wave, but we were not, therefore, to abridge our visit. We found him in steam perfumed with Friar’s Balsam. He waved the old Sunnapia facsimile at us. We agreed that it ought to have been more worthy. He took a dose of his mixture, lay back and asked us to lock the door. There was, he whispered, something wrong somewhere. He could not lay his finger on it, but it was in the air. He felt he was being played with. He did not like it. There was something wrong all round him. Had we noticed it? Manallace and I severally and slowly denied that we had noticed anything of the sort.
With no longer break than a light fit of coughing, he fell into the hideous, helpless panic of the sick — those worse than captives who lie at the judgment and mercy of the hale for every office and hope. He wanted to go away. Would we help him to pack his Gladstone? Or, if that would attract too much attention in certain quarters, help him to dress and go out? There was an urgent matter to be set right, and now that he had The Title and knew his own mind it would all end happily and he would be well again. Please would we let him go out, just to speak to — he named her; he named her by her ‘little’ name out of the old Neminaka days? Manallace quite agreed, and recommended a pull at the ‘liver-tonic’ to brace him after so long in the house. He took it, and Manallace suggested that it would be better if, after his walk, he came down to the cottage for a week-end and brought the revise with him. They could then re-touch the last chapter. He answered to that drug and to some praise of his work, and presently simpered drowsily. Yes, it was good — though he said it who should not. He praised himself awhile till, with a puzzled forehead and shut eyes, he told us that she had been saying lately that it was too good — the whole thing, if we understood, was too good. He wished us to get the exact shade of her meaning. She had suggested, or rather implied, this doubt. She had said — he would let us draw our own inferences — that the Chaucer find had ‘anticipated the wants of humanity.’ Johnson, of course. No need to tell him that. But what the hell was her implication? Oh God! Life had always been one long innuendo! And she had said that a man could do anything with anyone if he saved him the trouble of thinking. What did she mean by that? He had never shirked thought. He had thought sustainedly all his life. It wasn’t too good, was it? Manallace didn’t think it was too good — did he? But this pick-pick-picking at a man’s brain and work was too bad, wasn’t it? What did she mean? Why did she always bring in Manallace, who was only a friend — no scholar, but a lover of the game — Eh? — Manallace could confirm this if he were here, instead of loafing on the Continent just when he was most needed.
‘I’ve come back,’ Manallace interrupted, unsteadily. ‘I can confirm every word you’ve said. You’ve nothing to worry about. It’s your find — your credit — your glory and — all the rest of it.’
‘Swear you’ll tell her so then,’ said Castorley. ‘She doesn’t believe a word I say. She told me she never has since before we were married. Promise!’
Manallace promised, and Castorley added that he had named him his literary executor, the proceeds of the book to go to his wife. ‘All profits without deduction,’ he gasped. ‘Big sales if it’s properly handled. You don’t need money . . . Graydon’ll trust you to any extent. It ‘ud be a long . . . ’
He coughed, and, as he caught breath, his pain broke through all the drugs, and the outcry filled the room. Manallace rose to fetch Gleeag, when a full, high, affected voice, unheard for a generation, accompanied, as it seemed, the clamour of a beast in agony, saying: ‘I wish to God someone would stop that old swine howling down there! I can’t . . . I was going to tell you fellows that it would be a dam’ long time before Graydon advanced me two quid.’
We escaped together, and found Gleeag waiting, with Lady Castorley, on the landing. He telephoned me, next morning, that Castorley had died of bronchitis, which his weak state made it impossible for him to throw off. ‘Perhaps it’s just as well,’ he added, in reply to the condolences I asked him to convey to the widow. ‘We might have come across something we couldn’t have coped with.’
Distance from that house made me bold.
‘You knew all along, I suppose? What was it, really?’
‘Malignant kidney-trouble — generalised at the end. ‘No use worrying him about it. We let him through as easily as possible. Yes! A happy release . . . What? . . . Oh! Cremation. Friday, at eleven.’
There, then, Manallace and I met. He told me that she had asked him whether the book need now be published; and he had told her this was more than ever necessary, in her interests as well as Castorley’s.
‘She is going to be known as his widow — for a while, at any rate. Did I perjure myself much with him?’
‘Not explicitly,’ I answered.
‘Well, I have now — with her — explicitly,’ said he, and took out his black gloves . . .
As, on the appointed words, the coffin crawled sideways through the noiselessly-closing doorflaps, I saw Lady Castorley’s eyes turn towards Gleeag.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10