Friday, August 19, 2011
The Holocaust by R. Murry Gilchrist
Robert Murray Gilchrist’s great collection of decadent tales, The Stone Dragon and Other Tragical Romances (Methuen, 1894), owes much to W.E. Henley, ironically well known for his anti-decadent stance. Henley published many pieces in his National Observer that have become classics of the 1890s English decadent movement, including short stories by H.B. Marriott Watson, whose collection, Diogenes of London and other Fantasies and Sketches, dedicated to Henley, was also published by Methuen in 1893, stories and poems by W.B. Yeats, and verse by Graham R. Tomson.
Below is a list of Gilchrist stories that appeared in the National Observer, followed by the text of ‘The Holocaust,’ a tale in the same style as those that appeared in The Stone Dragon.
‘The Return,’ 2 July 1892
‘The Basilisk,’ 23 July 1892
‘The Writings of Althea Swarthmoor,’ 17 September 1892
‘Dame Inowslad,’ 7 January 1893
‘Witch-in-Grain,’ 6 May 1893
‘The Pageant of Ghosts,’ 19 August 1893
‘Bubble Magic,’ 18 November 1893
‘The Holocaust,’ 3 February 1894.
'The Holocaust' (The National Observer, 3 February 1894)
By R. Murray Gilchrist
My husband and master the bishop being called to Court, I journeyed yesterday to Broadlow. This morning my cousin’s second lady vehemently desired me to tell all I know of her who once held the place she adorns so brightly. We were in the still room, and the bantlings played on the floor, pulling the buckles of their mother’s shoes and croodling like culvers. The request was over-sudden; to gain time, I opened the green lattice, and looking out to the herb garden, said that little Bab herself had mounted by Neptune in the empty tank, and that in the sun-haze her countenance bore a plain likeness to one dead. And the row of clarifying waters in the window span round and round, and I swooned in madam’s arms. But she consoled me, and now to her will, I write the following history, in trust that my lord may never be permitted to read. The fustian preface I will omit; ‘tis but a record, unprofitable to the would-be adventurer, of life among the Barbary Rovers, of voyagers to Feginny, of the saving of a ship’s crew. Its six volumes are in the library, bound in pigskin, and revered by all. Of my cousin’s three years in Bologna – years devoted to the joys of Italian gallantry – little is known, for on that score he hath ever been silent.
Thirteen years ago he returned for good – even then scarce more than a youth – with the Princess Bice. As you know report tells that ere he travelled to Italy he and I had had love passages. The grandams teased me, and (for I am assured, madam, that you have heard) once I stole away from Broadlow for a month, and came back lightened. We were close akin, and Bible patriarchs enjoyed their handmaids…When news came of his marriage I prayed for a renewal of his ardour; but at the first sight of the Princes Bice, as she sat at his side in the big chariot, I knew that all hope was unavailing. Yet she was not more beautiful than you, dear lady; indeed her face lacked the mysterious and tender charm that shines from a woman whom nature has intended for motherhood. Where you are snowy, she was olive, her black her was dull and lifeless, not all quick and gold. If at any time Bab be taken into a darkened room, and the curtain lifted aback of her head some faint resemblance may be seen. Once, peeping unawares to the princess Bice’s dressing-closet, I saw her naked afront of the mirror – her wondrous hair unbound and tumbling to the floor. At my appearance her body flushed and methought I watched a rashlight burning in a grove of firs.
Her manner was haughty; at first it seemed as she mistrusted me, looking from her spouse to me and back again with some suspicion. He leaned on her shoulder, and it was as though I head, ‘This is she – was not I foolish? nay, sweetheart, trust me!’ The roses I had greeted her with were out carelessly aside.
My lord took my hand with ancient friendliness, ‘Diana is your gentlewoman,’ he said. ‘She will conduct you to the chamber.’
She smiled wryly, and laid her fingers on my palm, with a look bidding me kiss, so I raised their daintiness lothfully to my lips.
Then I led her through the lines of servants, past stately old Mother Humble – God rest her – and along the upper gallery to the bed-chamber; and there, when the door was shut, she put her hands on my shoulders and drew me to the hearth.
‘You were…’ she said. ‘He hath told me all, and I forewarn you that if – again – I can be an enemy worse than Satan himself. Yet, since you are his kinswoman, I had liefer you were my friend.’
At her girdle was a pouch made of silk, inwrought with a curious device of seed pearls; this she untied, and emptying to her table the comfits held therein, begged me to accept it as a token of her desire to act in all things well. From that even I became attached after a fashion; she held me as the flame holds the jenny-spinner. I strove to abhor her, yet was never happy save in her presence. ‘Tis to her I owe the accomplishments that commended me to the fancy of my husband the Bishop. True, in my girlhood I could strum on the harpsichord, but my music was never more than picking the tune with my forefinger and making base haphazard; and the Princess Bice taught me the rich fugues and solemn adagios of the Italian masters. The golden tissues that hang in the withdrawing-room we worked together on her toy-loom of ivory; and amongst my cousin’s books are many vellum scripts of our illumination.
Months passed, and the gossips began to grow impatient, for the couple had already spent nigh upon a year in Paris, and yet there was no sign of my lord’s happiness being consummated by the birth of one to inherit. The land, as you know, madam, goes with the title, and Sir Cadwallader, our Welsh kinsman, vowed, if ‘twere ever his, to divide the park into farms and to chop down every tree. My lord did not hate him (Sir Cadwallader being a fool), but it tore his heart to think of such beauty being destroyed. Day by day – hour by hour – the desire for a lawful child grew upon him, and she herself became impatient beyond measure, questioning minutely all the matrons and perusing all that has been writ. Several false alarms were given, and these themselves depressed the husband, for the continual deferring of hope fretted his soul. The chaplain spent long afternoons in prayer; and she harped on the idol-creed in which she had been bred, and sent to foreign shrines offerings of jewels and gold.
My lord’s demeanour changes, and, although he was never harsh, her caresses grew distasteful to him, and I have often seen him take away her hands from his brow, and crave leave to meditate. Then she would sigh like one demented, and for awhile in her voice as she sang I could find notes of anger and of braised tenderness, that wetted my eyes with tears, and made the fascination wherewith she held me deepen into love.
Three years after the return, my cousin was despatched to the Hague with secret messages for the Princess Mary of Orange, now – Heaven be praised – our queen, and in his absence, I saw her linger fondly over all that brought him to mind. She would sit in his chair, study his favourite books, and even kiss the breast of his coats, as if, perchance, she might detect some lingering aroma.
Once she strove with the women in the harvest field, hoping thus to cast away the curse of barrenness. At sunset – she had gleaned from noon – a wench passed by with her by blow, and she turned pale and sick, and came back to the house.
‘Diana,’ quoth she. ‘God’s mercy is unduly dispensed. Yon begger with her babe is starving. Go privately and bring the woman here, and feed her in my room!’
So I went and filled the strumpet with good things. Whilst she ate the Princess Bice stole the babe away, and when the half bemused mother noted its disappearance and cried out, I ran to the cabinet, and found madam, with the child patting her naked breasts and chuckling most jocundly.
Sometimes days passed without her making a comment on her grief, but anon she would lament. ‘’Tis not that I love children, Diana, but that I love my spouse. Love him – said I – marry, I adore him! Such is my devotion that were I to die in travail I should be tenfold more happy than to live unchilded.’
Each morning she writ an account of how the preceeding day had been spent; once by chance I tumbled on the unlocked book and read: ‘I am indeed weary, for what I know of his past assures me that I alone am to blame. Nay, I would yield up everything – cast away my riches – turn to the humblest wife in the land could I but once again wear him the flower of our passion. Yesterday I pondered, ‘twas as if between heaven and me hung a curtain of rusty steel God might not hear through. I have prayed and prayed and naught answers! I am tempted to turn to the Powers of Darkness. Are there no necromancers – no half-devils in human form who may help me? For now I am desperate and would travel over red hot plough-shares to compass my desire.’
A thousand preparations were made for my cousin’s home-coming. Every friend and kinsman of note was ordered, for the earldom had been given to reward his successful embassy. The Princess Bice grew paler and paler as the day approached, and mention of him brought the poppies to her cheeks. She had devised quaint entertainments, and the thought of his return made her heart beat so loudly that I might hear.
On an October evening she and I, hearing the beacon fired on Comber Knab, where had been stationed a watcher, set out to drive across the park, where the abysses writhed white vapours, like the steam from ever-shifting pots. She leaned from one window of the chariot; I from the other. The air was soft, but permeated with some subtle dullness; in the far landscape the basin-shaped depression of the Black Rake, surrounded by its tree-fringed cliffs, resembled an immense, solitary mere, with blackly glazed surface. The oaks of Hollym Chase wagged their heads above the underwood; the drowsy rooks wheeled to and fro. Twice the scritch-owl cried, and hills and valleys caught the horrid sound and echoed it with many reverberations; once a pike in the sullen stream sprang up and fell with heavy splashings. This was the good-night of all wild things; for after it the gloom deepened into inkiness, and across the sky was drawn a web denser than that of all former nights.
At the Cammer-Gate, where the wooden bridge crosses the gulf, the chariot drew up sharply, for an old man barred the way. He spake no word to the drivers, but moved slowly to the door from which my mistress leaned, and in the glimmering light of the lamp I marked his strangeness. His countenance was that of a physician, his attire of velvet edged with sable. He spoke in a foreign tongue, and she answered, her voice full of sharp gladness. ‘Twas not Italian – that I knew full well – but rather a barbarous lingo. Soon he threw into her lap a small packet, and pointing with a yellow hand to a copse of beeches, allowed the vehicle to pass. In a few minutes my lord had met us, and taken his seat by his wife’s side.
That night he was mightily loving. After supper, when the dance was opened, he was even handsomer than in the days when he had been lord of my own heart; and the Princess Bice seemed transfigured with delight. All the folk noted it; and many lamented that so fit a couple should be so unprofitable. Then, the morrow being Sunday, Dean Bastler, my mother’s uncle, who was deaf and decrepit, read his sermon on the relationship of Elkanah and his wife, taking for his text ‘Penninah had children, but Hannah had no children.’ He had never been a respecter of persons, and the discourse was little qualified to please, though, forsooth, the gaffer was eloquent enough. He told naught of Hannah’s joy, but recounted from history many instances of unprofitable wedlock, and declared that SIN alone was the cause. At the end he offered a lengthy prayer that the Almighty would see fit to bestow children on his host and hostess; and my lord, covering his face with his hands, which thing he was not wont to do, cried out Amen! As we left the chapel his lady fell on his bosom and whispered, ‘Am I not better to thee than ten sons?’ But he put her from him in silence.
An hour later I was sent for to her chamber, where I found her worn out with the frenzy of weeping. “All is over,’ she said. ‘For love’s sake be it done.’
My lord had cause to set out for London soon afterwards, and she bade him farewell with much tenderness. That night she drew me to a private place and undid before me the packet the old man had flung into her lap. ‘All it holds I know,’ she said, ‘but ‘twill be strange to you.’ And she showed me a handful of pastilicos. ‘Light one,’ she said.
I did as she bade me, and instantly a silence fell upon the place, so that even the crackling of the sea-coal was no longer heard. The air became redolent with marvellous perfumes, and I heard one tap-tapping at a door I wot not of, and felt unseen hands touching mine. She laughed, ‘To-night I will lie in the state bed,’ she said. ‘A whimzie has taken me; see that the purest linen is laid, and every window tightly fastened.’
Midnight was near when she withdrew from the company that was still in the house. At the foot of the staircase she trembled violently, and would have me clasp her waist; and when I had helped her undress she delayed me with a thousand pretexts, sitting uneasily in her chair by the fire and talking feverishly. On a table I saw in a copper chafing dish a charm of pastilicos; I made as though I would disturb its symmetry, but she called me to her side. ‘Nay, Diana, do not destroy my plan! She gasped. ‘Give me the taper.’
I placed it in her hands; she lighted it, and moved to the chafing dish and touched the pastilicos one by one. Then I flew to the door, but she followed me open mouthed and caught me in her arms. Her lips said, though no sound came, ‘Stay with me! stay with me!’
My limbs lost all power and I fell to the floor. The Princess Bice crawled into the bed. From the pastilicos arose an angry melody; then all was silent. Soon the air of the chamber trembled and gathered together over the smoulderings; and hovering there I beheld the figure of a man so fearfully and miraculously beautiful that my eyes were dazzled. The curtains parted and fell to, and I saw no more.
At daybreak I felt her breath upon my cheek, and heard her command of silence. Some time before noon all the servants were called together in the Council Room, where my mistress, very haggard but full of triumph, sat in the great seat from which Mall of Broadlow had dispensed judgment. ‘Friends,’ she said sogtly, ‘for I may call you friends, I have news of import. Your master’s trouble will soon be removed, for I have cause – and ‘tis not hope now, but truth certainly – to believe that in due time I shall bring him a child.’ So unexpected was her announcement that even those who had regarded her with disfavour, fell to their knees, and, as she passed through their midst, caught the edges of her skirt to kiss. Dean Bastler had stood at the door and one had repeated her words loudly, and he raised his hands in benediction; but she passed without any sign, and, although she spoke not of it to her guests, all matrons divined the cause of her vapourish spirits. And when my lord returned ‘twas to find the house mad with delight. The months passed quickly; all preparations were made for the lying-in; but the Princess Bice herself took interest in naught save her husband’s devotion.
The night of her lightening came at last, and by her request I sat with her before her labour. She had instructed me to light at a certain time the pastilico that still remained. As the clock struck I obeyed, and saw her rise from her bed and leave the chamber, ever increasing the space between us; I followed – sank upon the stairs – strove vainly to cry for succour.
Afterwards I crawled on hands and knees through many long deserted passages, and into the open park. Her bare feet passed hurriedly over the grass in the distance, then turned across to the road, and to the wooden bridge where we had met the old man. She reached the beech copse, and ere she entered a flame leapt forward to embrace her; I heard a long and terrible sigh. From the house came a crowd of searchers, headed by my lord; amidst the heart-burnt wood they found Bab lying on a bed of charred leaves.