Dreads and Drolls, by Arthur Machen


All these “Dreads” and “Drolls” appeared in “The Graphic”. They were gathered from all sorts of sources. Most of them are strictly veridical, but it may be confessed that here and there imagination plays a small part.

My favourite in the collection is, decidedly, the story of Grimaldi the Clown and his long-lost brother. It is an enigma of a tale. On the one hand, there is nothing improbable in the bare plot. Many lads, I have no doubt, went to sea in the adventurous times of the Napoleonic Wars, and were unheard of by their families for long years, often enough they were never heard of again. They were killed in one fight or another, they perished in African swamps, they became Archimandrites in Russia, or confidential advisers to the Dey of Algiers or to Prester John. And again there is nothing improbable in the adventurer’s return with a heavy bag of gold, nothing improbable in the final disappearance of a young man who flourishes this bag of gold in the purlieus of Drury Lane as the chimes are ringing midnight.

That is the bare plot of the tale, and as I say, it is all probable enough; and yet I defy anybody to read Grimaldi’s story without lifting an incredulous eyebrow. And I have come to the conclusion that this impression is due to Grimaldi’s unconscious art, I have no doubt that the Clown spoke the truth; but he had within him that love of mystery and wonder which (as I have said till people are sick of hearing me say it) is the sure foundation, the only foundation of Art. Again and again in his odd book this note of mysteriousness occurs. Take, for example, the incident, of the man with the silver staff. Grimaldi always declared that he never knew who this personage was. He didn’t want to know. If he had made enquiries, I suppose he would have found that the mysterious stranger was Chief Bow Street Runner, or, as we should say, something big at Scotland Yard. And so, I daresay that the affair of Mr. Mackintosh and his twelve friends — a tale absolutely Arabian, as Grimaldi tells it — would have seemed tiresome enough to a man without his admirable capacity for mystery and capacity of creating it.

And thus in the business of the long-lost brother. It all happened, and there is nothing very remarkable in it — save for the wonderful though unconscious art which has made a plain tale of plain facts read like a subtle study in mysterious suggestion, a ghost story of the rarest kind.

This is a great gift: to be able so to tell the bare truth that it seems a magnificent lie. To many of us, it is rather given to invent elaborate fictions which are plainer (and duller) than the plainest facts.

A. M.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58