Nights of the Round Table: A Book of Strange Tales by Margery Lawrence (1998, Ash-Tree Press)
Margery Lawrence (1889-1969) is having an outstanding 2021. She is included in the canon-making Handheld Press anthology Women's Weird: Strange Stories by Women, 1890-1940, edited by Melissa Edmundson. The story selected, "The Haunted Saucepan," is one of the book's real jewels, a masterpiece of the uncanny whose unpromising title contributes to reader complacency. It's a complacency Lawrench happily crushes with each subsequent turn of her screw.
Nights of the Round Table is a club story collection. Most members, regardless of their middle class profession, are conversant with the supernatural and happy to explore their personal experiences. Most of the tales are modest in scope, though Lawrence handles even small-scale weirdness with Jamesian suggestiveness.
January: The Occultist's Story: Vlasto's Doll • (1925)
The doll in question is the highlight of Karl Vlasto's stage show. It is a mechanical masterpiece, unsurpassed and uncannily lifelike.
'"My friends, you will forgive me that I am late. Fraulein Minna here, she was wilful and I could not manage her at all. You know how it is, with the ladies, . . ." His light magnetic eyes roved over the audience nudging each other and tittering, rather impressed but not quite sure whether they were intended to laugh or not. He went on in the same detached tone. "You know me—some of you—and you know I tell the truth when I introduce my Minna to you as the One and Only Living Doll in the World. To those others who see her here for the first time tonight, I say now the same thing . . . look at her well. Come up to me here, gentlemen. . . ." His quick eye had obviously seized upon us and our English clothes in the crowd of Germans. . . . "I say always to my new audiences, come up and see! There are many who say my Minna is no doll at all, but a live woman—but they lie. With my own hands did I make her, from every tiny joint in her wonderful body to the last hair on her head . . . yet she is alive! It is true—the Only Living Doll in the World. Hey, Minna!"
'I admit, I jumped! The doll rose, stiffly, but quite of her own accord. Vlasto was standing at the left of the stage a good ten feet away from her, and certainly I could see no wires. She advanced, walking mechanically but steadily, and came to the side of the man. . . . She towered above him nearly a foot, and the blank painted face and staring eyes were somehow very unpleasant to see so close—we were right under the lee of the stage. Leaning idly back against the pillar of the proscenium, Vlasto addressed the doll.
"'Well, Minna—bow to the ladies and gentlemen, and say good evening to them!"
'His lean hand was caressing his chin, but his lips were firmly shut, and closely as I looked, I could see no muscles working, as is usual in any ventriloquist's cheek. The doll answered, as I stared, in a hard but definitely feminine voice.
'"Good evening, my friends! I am glad to see you."
'The wooden mouth opened, the lips parted, the words came forth, yet I could see no perceptible crack in the face!
'I sat forward, aroused to real interest. This was certainly clever. . . . As I sat up, Vlasto addressed me personally, in fluent but execrable English.
'"Good efening, mister gentlemans. You come up on der stage and see der iss no lie in what I say—that my Minna she is chust a doll and no woman hidden unter paindt and moch cleferness. I will be pleasst if you kom. Dere are many English gentlemans who say I lie, bot I do not lie. Kom, see der Doll dat lives and iss yet a Doll only!"
'I found myself and Barrington, my chum, eagerly scrambling up on to the dusty, draughty stage. The wings, I noticed, were crowded with other artistes in various stages of undress, cloaks huddled over their make-up, watching Vlasto with a breathless interest that certainly argued well for the position he held in the Bavarian theatrical world.
'As we stood each side the figure—awkwardly, as does every Englishman under the fire of a thousand eyes—Vlasto took the Doll, and with a quick touch at her neck, lo, she "fell apart", splitting open down the back, dress and all, like the inside of an immense and complicated watch. Barrington, who is a mechanical engineer by profession, was absorbed in interest; as for me, I understood nothing of the technicalities of what I saw, but I had to abandon my first impression, which was that the Doll was simply a cleverly made-up woman. She was, really, a Doll. . . .
'Vlasto was watching Barrington's face as he pattered his glib speeches to the audience, watching us as we poked and pried among the mechanism, then, just as Barrington bent to examine closer, he twisted the Doll cleverly to face the audience and bowed to us in dismissal.
'"Chentlemans, you are fery good. You haf seen my Minna iss a Doll in truth, and no dressed-up womans to deceive. Now, my good friends, you have seen how she works, my wonderful Doll. Now she shall work really to amuse us all. Minna!" 'With a click something shot into place, and the Doll, whole once more, rose to her feet and faced her master. The orchestra struck up, and, opening her mouth, she began to sing!
'Now, I can assure you I was not in the least a nervy sort of lad, though I had, of course, the very delicate "sixth sense" that all occultists have more developed than most people . . . but that singing made me shiver! How, I really cannot tell you—but it was so—so beastly inhuman! It was a loud, harsh, metallic voice, such as you might well imagine would issue from a doll's throat, if a doll could ever sing, yet there was something quite horribly feminine about it, something like a human streak hiding under the mechanical, if you know what I mean! It was a gay marching song, with a lot about "Deutschland" and "Der Kaiser", and so on . . . and it was applauded to the echo, of course, but somehow I sat and shivered and simply loathed it, as that steely voice rang on through the silent theatre, and that flat, expressionless wooden face stared straight ahead into space over our heads. At the finish, under cover of the crashing applause, I turned to Barrington, and found his brow creased by a faint frown. I hesitated to speak, dreading his laughter, as a sensitive fellow will, and he spoke, to my astonished relief.
'"Hellier—this is—queer. And rather beastly, somehow. Don't know why—but don't you feel it?"
'I nodded eagerly. "Of course, it's simply hateful. He's damnably clever . . . but I feel like you, only more so. Have ever since he came on the stage . . . what is it, do you think?"
'Barrington was frowningly intent upon the stage.
'"I can't say, but I noticed one very odd thing when we saw that doll's inside. Hush, I'll tell you afterwards. Something else is on."
February: The Poet's Story: Robin's Rath • (1923)
A young American pork packing heiress purchases an estate and decides to make a shortcut from her door to the local golf course. Bourgeois arrogance gets its just desserts, rest assured.
'Of course I am—I have—it goes with Ghyll Hall! Besides, when I get a path made it will make a perfect short cut to the golf-links.'
There was a sudden stir and rustle among the group of villagers; with one accord they looked at old Giles—and there was a pointed little silence. Flushing with annoyance, Ellen glanced from one face to another. Her one wish was to get on well with the villagers of this tiny lovely village, Ghyllock, which seemed to live in the shelter of the old manor-house, Ghyll Hall, for centuries the seat of the Ruddocks, and now passing, like so many other many-memoried old houses, into the hands of the stranger. An only child, her father wax in her hands, the pretty spoilt American beauty had passed through Ghyllock only once, on a motor tour, and seeing the wonderful old house set in miles of green woods and meadows and fields, had given her father no peace till he offered to buy it for her—much as he would have endeavoured to buy the moon, had she wanted it! The grounds ran down to a narrow belt of woodland, thick with undergrowth, the tangling green luxuriance that had never known shears or pruning knife—Robin's Rath. Beyond lay the golf links, within easy walking distance of the Hall when the path mentioned should be cut—certainly it seemed a good idea, and there was some reason for Ellen's puzzled annoyance at the sudden silence that greeted her remark. Even the landlord of the picturesque inn, The Goose with the Golden Eggs, lounging in the shadow of his own doorway to listen to the gossip under the great elm tree outside, put down his mug of beer and stared at her curiously. She spoke sharply, addressing old Giles, whose heavy white brows were drawn down over his intent old eyes in a heavy frown.
'What in the world's the matter? You all look as if I'd threatened to kill somebody!'
'Ye're cutting a path through the Rath?' Giles's voice was a little raised so that all might hear the enormity proposed. Ellen flushed angrily now, and spoke, settling her pointed chin more decidedly into her vivid blue woollen scarf.
'Certainly I am—it's the quickest way to the links. Is there any reason why I should not?'
Everyone was listening intently now, and Giles gave an odd laugh, still studying her under his shaggy brows.
'No, missy; no real reason. But ye shudna' try—ye shudna' try!'
'Why on earth?' Ellen was getting both thoroughly ruffled and a little alarmed now. The old man sent a swift glance round at the circle of interested faces.
'Robin's Rath never bin touched, Missy. If ye'll tek an old man's advice ye'll leave it be—Robin's Rath's better as it is.'
'Aye—aye, right enough.' 'Leave it be, Miss—better leave it be.'
A confused chorus of voices from the watching group all gravely eyeing her, emphasised the old man's words, and with a quick angry shrug and laugh Ellen turned away, pushing the ends of the scarf into the front of her grey tweed jacket.
'Really, you are talking nonsense! I shall do what I choose with the place—sorry if it annoys you, but I really see no sense in what you say against the idea of cutting a path through a piece of wild land! Good day. . . .'
Her slim figure disappeared round the turn of the lane, and old Giles shrugged his shoulders as he took up his pipe again.
'No sense?—well, well! Happen she'll see sense before 'tes too late—happen she mayn't; then the Lord help her, for she's a pretty piece enough.'
March: The Hypnotist's Story: The Woozle • (1924)
Does a child's mind have the power to create a closet monster? Margery Lawrence does brilliantly here with the cross-purposes and conflicting loyalties of what today we would euphemise as a blended family.
'Perhaps the sight of his pretty mother as she ran down the stairs in a new and gorgeous frock, too hurried to stop and kiss him good night, had upset him with its reminder of the days not so long vanished when it was Mummy's hand that tucked him up and Mummy's voice that bade him "shut eye-peeps, sonny, and go to sleep". At all events, sleep he would not, and Ethel, more and more impatient to get away for the precious hour with her young man, waxed more and more irritated as the time wore on. Twice she thought the child safely asleep, and, on her tiptoeing to the door the little fretful voice had arisen.
'"Ethel! Where you goin' to, Ethel? I want a drink!" or a pillow turned, or a toy found, or something done, after the usual manner of a peevish, restless child. When this happened for the fifth time Ethel lost her temper completely, and as she tucked up the rumpled bedclothes she spoke, viciously:
'"Look here, Master Tony, I've 'ad about enough of your noise for tonight. I'm going to turn the light down, and if you don't lie quiet and go to sleep like a good boy, I'll tell the bogey what lives in the dark cupboard to come out and punish you for being so naughty—there now!"
The child turned suddenly arrested eyes upon her.
'"In the toy cupboard—somekin lives in there?" His startled gaze surveyed the girl as, emboldened by what she considered her success, she proceeded to embroider her tale.
'"Yes—and what'd mother do if she found her little boy gone one fine day? He's after all naughty boys what don't do what they're told, he is—just waits till it's dark and quiet, and then he comes creeping out of his cupboard, creeping and creeping . . ."
'The wide eyes turned from her face to the open-gaping mouth of the dark toy cupboard beside the fireplace, then back again; there was a dawning terror in them, but the foolish girl did not see, and when he lay down obediently and let her tuck him up and turn the light low she inwardly congratulated herself upon her astuteness on finding a method of silencing the eternal clatter of the little tongue. To her secret surprise he did not even make his usual protest at the lowering of the light, but lay curled in a little heap deep under the bedclothes. His eyes followed her as she went, unblinking, wide with the first touch of fear, and a hand laid on the tiny tight-curled body would have felt it shaking, shaking. . . .
'Ethel Alford returned to the nursery ten minutes or so before her master and mistress were due home, in high spirits, and a new bangle from her admirer. She took a peep at her charge, and went to bed contented that all was well. True, the child had fallen asleep at last, but if she had had any knowledge of children, she would have noticed that he had not moved one inch from the bunched-up position in which she left him, deep in the cot under the clothes, and these were ominously dragged over his head and held there in a small clenched hand.
'He was subdued for the next few days, and played quietly; trotted at her heels in the Park instead of romping with his usual group of small friends, and behaved with exemplary propriety. As a matter of fact, Ethel had forgotten her hasty remark altogether, and was rather startled and none too pleased when one day he asked suddenly:
'"Ethel! Does he still live there?" A small hand pointed to the toy cupboard, and the blue eyes that turned up to hers were a shade dilated in the firelight. It was nearly seven o'clock, and bedtime drawing near, and the shadows, the deep shadows that were once so warm and friendly, were already beginning to play in the comers of the big nursery.
'For a moment Ethel was disconcerted. To do her justice, she had not the remotest idea of the harm she was doing, or one might blame her more bitterly; the fact that the child remembered her remark surprised her, and for a moment she hesitated. Then she remembered how well Tony had recently behaved, and was reluctant to admit she had invented the whole thing, lest her authority over him be weakened. . . . Hastily she picked him up and set him on her knee, a belated compunction catching at her heart.
'"Now that's all right, Master Tony! I told you he only came for naughty boys, and you bin as good as gold these days—he won't come after you as long as you're good and do what Ethel tells you!"
April: The Barrister's Story: Floris and the Soldan's Daughter • (1925)
Narrator Otway's friend Floris is besotted by something the narrator assumes is a worthless curio or trinket. Floris calls it "The Soldan's Daughter."
I took Floris down with me for a week to my people in Hampshire. They were charmed with him, his funny little shy manner was disarming, though his clothes were more wildly untidy than ever, and my mother is generally scrupulously particular about that sort of thing; I caught her mending a hole in Floris's flannel coat the second day—my stately mother darning a disreputable grey jacket, with a houseful of maids at her service!—so that shows you the sort of effect he had on women.
As for my very pretty sister Molly, she fell violently in love with him, and grew exasperated almost to frenzy at his complete unconsciousness and failure to perceive a state of mind that would have sent any other of her many adorers at once into the seventh heaven. We golfed, though he was an execrably bad player, ran about in the car, and, since he didn't play bridge, I generally left him to Molly to amuse after dinner—a task in which she generally succeeded to a heart-breaking extent, since three evenings with her dark eyes were usually enough to send any normal young man into a seriously lovelorn condition. Not so Floris, to her great chagrin—he liked her, liked to sit or, rather, lie, a long, limp figure, hands in the pockets of his dinner-jacket, listening to her as she played or sang, his great eyes staring into the fire. But as she angrily told me later, she soon stopped that, knowing, as a pretty woman instantly knows, that all the joy she gave him with her music might just as well have been provided by a gramophone. He wanted to think, and music was a good accompaniment. As usual with spoilt women, seeing he did not even advance half-way, she did, and received a snub—though again, so gently done, and so unconscious a snub, that even in her feminine chagrin she yet could not be angry with him.
For the first time Molly failed to make a hit, and it ruffled her considerably! I asked for details, and she replied impatiently, 'Oh, he's not stiff and nervous, there'd be more hope if he were, but he's just always nice and sweet and casually polite, so much so, that it's obvious I might as well have a beard like Great-Aunt Jane! And I've been flirting with him more shamelessly than ever I did . . . you know I have.'
'I do,' I said, with a suppressed grin—for, indeed, Molly's infatuation had been more than noticeable. She hurried on, punctuating her speech with injured sniffs.
'Well, he wouldn't rise a scrap, and really I got quite cross. I absolutely determined he should kiss me the day before he left, so I got him here after lunch, and I know I'm looking nice in this new frock—and I just meant to make him. We talked, you know what a funny inconsequent way of talking at random about all sorts of little things he has: and I looked at him.'
I knew Molly's way of looking, and its usual effect. I nodded to fill the gap, and she went on:
'And just as I really thought he was going to melt at last, he looked at me very straight, and said in a sort of reflective voice, "Yes. I should rather like to kiss you in some ways—but after all, you're not the Soldan's Daughter!" Now what do you make of that?'
May: The Golfer's Story: The Fifteenth Green • (1926)
They broke ground on the new coastal golf course's expansion; the new fifteenth required removal of an old man and his hut. The old man was vocal in his protests, and in his promises about the misfortunes players would reap. Daily gales on the fifteenth hole were only the start.
"The Fifteenth Green" is the most successful weird story in Nights of the Round Table. Though there are echoes of the superb Wakefield story "The Seventeenth Hole at Duncaster" (1928), the folk-horror background of "lurking millennial horror" (Lovecraft) is not presented as the cause of menace. Nor is the cause a Blackwoodian nature spirit, as in "Robin's Rath."
"....How dull and gloomy it seemed to be growing, and how the wind whipped the bending seagrass, and howled among the crouching bushes! To Binner's fevered fancy, now, they seemed like hunched figures grouping together in the hollows, on the frowning ridges, peering, nudging, whispering to each other to look as Harry Lansing, all unconscious, strode swiftly onwards towards his fate.
'Beside Binner the two caddies trotted along together, whispering too, their frightened eyes avoiding his—blind, helpless, they were all caught up together into this great Web that was being woven, and could stir no hand nor foot to avert things . . . in a dream he caught snatches of the boys' muttered talking, scared, incoherent. . . .
'". . . Seen it again larst night, Alf did . . . crawlin' up from the sea all wet, ugh!—black and shiny in the moonlight . . . like nothin' on earth. Somep'n like a man, but it ain't a man . . . wouldn't come dahn 'ere a' nights for noffink, I wouldn't. And now Lansing had reached the Green!
'Binner, halting by his own ball, deep buried in a tussock of grass, reached mechanically for a club as his friend turned and shouted to him, striding over the smooth surface of the green towards the drop into the deep bunker beyond. ". . . easy . . . can see it now . . . beat you here! . . ." came faintly back to him on the buffeting wind, and Harry Lansing dropped out of sight over the edge. Binner, with a curiously fatalistic feeling that now—now it was over—what did it matter what he did?—bent over his ball; but at that moment quite suddenly and horribly Lansing's caddie, struggling after him against the wind, began to scream, wildly, dreadfully, and throwing his clubs down, dropped upon the turf, his face in his hands.
'The humanness of the sound, despite its horror, awoke Binner to action from his curious stupor of acquiescence . . . and he ran, ran like a hare to the crouched boy, cowering and shivering . . . but the lad waved him wildly on, screaming incoherencies.
'"I saw It! I saw It . . . It's got 'im . . ." The words died away as Binner rushed on to the green, crossed it and stared blankly down into the deep hollow the further side . . . and it was empty! Empty as the blank sea, the sighing air—the idle club lay beside the white gleaming ball, clear against the sandy bottom, but of the fat cheerful player there was no trace—nor, since then, has Harry Lansing ever been heard of more!'
We drew in our breaths and exchanged glances. Hellier, absorbed, spoke first of all of us. He loved to know the details, to finish off his knowledge as it were.
'It . . . the Thing the caddie screamed about! What was it?'
Ponting lifted his shoulders and shook his head.
'How can I say?' His voice was sober. 'I—that is to say, Binner . . . Binner was too busy running to his friend's help to glance towards the sea and that sinister Boat that lolled up and down in the tide. Besides, he might not have seen whatever the caddie did see. I'm inclined to think the boy was an unconscious psychic . . . anyway, all Binner could get out of him between his crying and shivering was that Something . . . Something wet and dark and trailing that seemed to have been crouched among the nets—or maybe pulled itself into the Boat by the nets, he could never say. . . . But the lad had the definite momentary impression that as Lansing dropped Something trailed itself, sinuously and swiftly, horribly swiftly, out of the Boat and up the sand, and disappeared behind the Green into the fatal bunker behind it . . . and that's all! The Boat worked loose that night and was never seen again—if it ever was a Boat at all. . . . Sometimes I'm inclined to think it was only a sort of Screen for Whatever came out of the sea to wreak vengeance on the old man's behalf. I don't know . . . we shall never know now. But I resigned from the Club—that finished me as far as Rentford was concerned.'
Amidst our impressed silence Ponting—otherwise Binner—stood up to go. By the door he turned, however, and, surveying the meditative roomful, added the last postscript to his yarn.
'I heard afterwards, by the way, that the people that cleared out the old man's stuff—he never appeared to claim anything, so it was ultimately sold—found a lot of curious old books on various rather unpleasant sorts of black magic, and some curious instruments, with an ebony wand and some peculiarly nasty dried things—and they said the floor of the hut was all marked with chalk in various funny lines and diagrams. The man that kept the things had awful dreams and his wife got scared, so they burnt them . . . if we'd got them here now I rather think one might have found out things about the old man that would have startled us a bit, eh? Goodnight, Saunderson, and thanks awfully. Goodnight, you fellows.'
June: The Priest's Story: How Pan Came to Little Ingleton • (1926)
This is the mild, charming story of the sermon young stick-in-the-mud
Reverend Thomas Minchin preached on Midsummer to his parishioners at Little Ingleton. It also details the fantastical encounter that preceded that address.
Before his paeans to Pan, Minchin was on a very different track:
Had he not instituted fresh services, countless in number and strict in their ordinances? Suppressed dancing in the village hall or on the green? Closed down The George and Crown except for the sale of ginger ale and such innocuous drinks—banished from the chemist's shop poudre de riz, lip rouge, scents and other snares of the devil? Who but he had worked unceasingly for the regeneration of Little Ingleton—sunk as he had found it, in idle happiness, with but one or at most two services 'a Sunday, and used (low be it spoken!) to the lax ways of his predecessor, old Father Fagan, frail, gentle, kindly, who, it was whispered, at times so far forgot his duties as a clergyman as to watch and even take part in dancings and singings and junketings on the village green? Even Miss Rosamond Perkins, who wore pretty summer dresses of pink or blue and yellow patterned with gay little flowers, and had bright eyes and cherry lips—though to be sure, the Reverend Thomas had never noticed whether her lips were red or no—even Miss Perkins was reputed to have danced and laughed and played with these unregenerates before the advent of sterner ways.
July: The Soldier's Story: Death Valley • (1924)
Lawrence does a good job here depicting an encounter with an entity part folklore and part Bierce's "The Damned Thing." The story has that official administrator tone, and the economical guise of being a mere anecdote.
Dennison and Hill, both of the Rhodesian colonial administration (and very Sanders-of-the-River stout-hearted chaps) are on the track of ivory poachers. Hill precedes Dennison into the "death valley," but Dennison eventually catches up.
'I tiptoed in and stood beside the table; there was the dark stain of dried coffee still in the cups, the grease-marks and scattered crumbs still on the plates and knives. . . . All alike with the shadow of old dust still over them, grey and menacing. Picking up a plate, I put it down again hastily. In the corner, facing the door, lay the body of my chum, Hill, huddled back against the wall in a half-sitting position, his hands lax, fallen to his sides, and his head on his chest, thrust forward, the open eyes fixed on the blank wall to the right of the door. I choked down a gulp, and kneeling down, felt for his heart; he was dead and cold, and if I know the look in a dead man's eyes—and I should, by God!—he had died of fright.
'The pale mouth was frozen into a dreadful square of horror, and the eyes were blank and staring. . . . I propped him up, poor old chap, and threw one of the tattered rugs from the bed over his body. Why, I don't quite know, but it seemed more decent somehow.
"Then a thought struck me, and taking a straight line to the wall, where Hill's eyes were fixed, I found something startling. In a small space as large as the palm of my hand there were five bullet-holes in the wood! Going back to the body, I picked up the dropped revolver, and shook out the spent cartridges—five!
'Something—or someone—had stood facing Hill against that wall, had stood immovable while he, backing, backing away from the terror that stood there, had fired off his last five shots and dropped in his tracks, slithering down the wall to the floor, the revolver dropping from his nerveless hand, his eyes fixed, glaring! Stooping, I measured the height of the shots from the floor—just the height of a man's heart they were, and all close together. Hill was a fine shot, and these had found their billet—but at what had he shot, in God's name?
'Not a footprint but his, and now mine, disturbed the deep carpet of dust that spread the floor, and ours were unmistakable, in our thick square-heeled riding boots. Scratching my head, utterly perplexed, I stood staring from the holes in the wall to the white face of the corpse in the corner.
'What—what had stood there smiling while Hill, mad with fear, pumped shot after shot pell mell into its heart, and sank? . . . I jumped, a cold nasty little feeling at my heart. What on earth had made me think of that particular word "smiling"? . . . Yet it was there, had been there, most distinctly! Pulling myself savagely together I shouted to the shrinking dogs, who still sat outside. Whining, they poked their great heads cautiously into the room one after the other, and promptly retreated.
'It was only by dint of much swearing that at last they entered, mincing nervously in, nose to tail, their lucent brown eyes peering into every corner. I watched them interestedly. It was not the corpse they feared—Jack and Bella had both known Hill well, and Bella especially nosed piteously round him, moaning at his silence, poor bitch; no, it was something else. Together they trotted silently about the room, sniffing, inspecting, as a dog does—but I noticed that they avoided the bed in particular, and that neither of them went near the corner with the bullet-holes. I went and stood there and called Bella, my pet—she stood pawing the ground gently a little distance off, moaning in her great throat and staring at me and at the wall, but come nearer she would not.
August: The Egyptologist's Story: The Curse of the Stillborn • (1925)
Michael Frith, the archeologist, reports on the fate of an imperious vicar's wife, Mrs. Peter Bond. It's a wonderful acid sketch set amid a strong learns-better-but-too-late tale of colonial Egypt. It's a perfect August story.
Mrs Bond pursed her lips disapprovingly. Upright and heavily built, in uncompromisingly stiff white piqué, her thick waist well-belted, her weatherbeaten face surmounted by a pith helmet, she looked impregnably solid and British, reflected Frith exasperatedly—three years among these people and no nearer comprehending them. He tried again.
'You see—Mefren's a child of the desert . . . and her old mother's a pure-bred nomad . . . wild as a hawk. Why can't you let 'em bury their dead in peace?'
'I am surprised at your attitude, Mr Frith! I'm sorry, but I can't undertake to advise my husband any differently. These people are ignorant, childish, superstitious. . . . I and my husband stand here to try and teach them better. And you actually suggest that I allow Mefren to bury her baby as she likes—presumably in the Desert, with I don't know what awful sort of heathen rites—when my husband is here a minister of the Lord, ready and anxious to give the poor little thing decent Christian burial! I must say I don't think this side of it can have struck you, Mr Frith!'
Mrs Bond's voice was genuinely shocked. Restlessly little Michael Frith stirred and kicked a booted foot against the whitewashed wall. He frowned—how could he explain? The native point of view . . . and this good-hearted, narrow, stubborn woman!
Vaguely his mind fled to Mefren, small, slender brown creature, and her mother, Takkari, silent and haggard, with black burning eyes beneath her voluminous haik. Wanderers both, they had appeared at the door of his tent one dawn with a request for food . . . he was encamped on the lip of the Valley of Blue Stones, a deep cleft between two ridges a few miles away from the tiny town of Ikh Nessan, where Peter Bond's little whitewashed church brooded over the tangle of mud huts like a white hen mothering a scattered handful of brown and alien chicks. Always soft-hearted, Frith had fed them both, and seeing the girl's condition and obvious exhaustion, had sent them into Ikh Nessan with a note to Mrs Bond—of whose kind heart, despite her irritating ways, none of the tiny colony had the least doubt. Food and shelter were at once forthcoming, and none too soon, for it came to pass, only a few days after the wanderers' arrival at Ikh Nessan, that the girl's time came upon her, but too soon . . . and a child was born, but dead—stillborn.
Full of well-meaning sympathy and a genuine desire to help, Mrs Bond had hurried to inform Takkari, grimly silent, crouched in the shadows of the mud hut that sheltered the weeping girl, that despite the fact that the child, poor little soul, had died too early for baptism, her husband was ready at once to conduct the burial service. She was met by blank silence and a vigorous shake of the head. Dashed, and considerably annoyed, the Englishwoman demanded her reasons. Glowering silence again, but repeated attacks elicited the brusque information, in halting English, that 'Kistian bury no good. Come night, her bury self—come night, her go aways.'
Naturally Mrs Bond was outraged, and withdrew to consult her husband. I fear, had it not been for Nature, whose heavy hand on the young mother forbade anything in the way of flight, Takkari and her daughter would have been away, lost in the heart of the Desert they came from, before that night. But the evening brought little Peter Bond, full of anxious sympathy for this frail member of the flock he genuinely loved, though shocked beyond measure at his wife's report of Takkari's refusal, and the sullen, stubborn silence with which she faced him. It was while awaiting the result of this, Mrs Bond felt, most momentous interview, standing at the rickety gate of the little walled garden, the evening sun warm on the tamarisks that sprawled, green and lusty, across the whitewashed wall, that Michael Frith, dusty and hot, trudged by and paused with a cheery word. Full of her story, she had poured it forth, and her surprise and indignation were great to meet his gaze at the end—a look in which politeness warred with frank disapproval. His sympathies were entirely with Mefren and her dour, free-striding old nomad mother; why should they who were, at best, mere birds of passage, be obliged to conform to the hidebound ideas of this stupid Englishwoman? Left to himself 'Peterkin', as the little chaplain was affectionately known, would have been a sympathetic, understanding father to these wayward children of his—it was the insistent domination of this well-meaning, sincerely religious, but supremely narrow-minded wife of his that drove him into insisting on the 'Church's rights'. The phrase was on Mrs Bond's lips as Frith aroused himself from his reverie; she was still talking, her square, hard-featured face stern with strong disapproval as she eyed him.
'Towards a member of his flock—I told my husband he must not admit argument on the subject. As a Father, he must be Firm. . . .'
'But surely, it's not as if Mefren was a Christian,' objected Frith drily; 'if it was a member of your husband's congregation . . .'
'Oh, but she is!' Mrs Bond was eagerly assertive. 'They are both Christians . . . I took care to inquire about that when they came first, and Takkari assured me that both she and Mefren had been baptised!'
September: My Own Story: The Fields of Jean-Jacques • (1926)
"The Fields of Jean-Jacques" is a splendidly macabre story of rustic ritual blessing of blighted land to renew its fecundity. The instrument of this propitiation is the learning-disabled younger brother of a desperate farmer. Rural France is lovingly evoked.
The Professor was talking, and Réné Baudin, young and eager student, listened reverentially as the great man expounded, waving one hairy hand in the air to emphasise his points as he chewed at his well-worn pipe-stem. Réné lay prone, half-buried in the deep sweet-smelling clover—his thin brown face propped on his hands. The fields were thick with waving young crops, and the gruff talk and laughter of the peasants working amongst them rang out clear in the warm stillness. The wide valley swept up each side to the majestic hills, vine-clad almost to their summits, and the little village in the hollow lay as if cradled in the lush greenness, red roofs and pointed gables emerging from the clustering orchards like rocks from a swirling tide—the Professor paused in his peroration, and flourished a great hand towards the gracious scene.
'Fertility! The chief end and aim of Nature, argue how we will! The fertility of the soil-linked up, always and eternally, in the primitive mind, with the fertility of Man! And after all, fundamentally, the untutored mind may have come nearer to some eternal truth than we know. . . .'
'You mean?' questioned Réné, his eyes fixed on his master with the passionate devotion of a neophyte.
'Zut! You know the old ceremonies of fertilizing the land—that rite so old and twisted now that one has no hope of even ferreting out its original form . . . yet the essentials remain. The solemn ceremony of laying, as it were, the spell of fertility upon the waiting earth, so that the crops might germinate, the fruit set in the bud, the root form in the earth, what time the fruit of man formed within the womb of woman! In the very ancient days, no husband knew his wife while his crops were being sown; the women kept to themselves awaiting the great day, the day on which, all crops being sown, all preparations made and man and woman purified by fasting, the High Priest and Priestess led the people to the sacred fields, strewing flowers, singing and dancing, and there in the light of the moon enacted in sacred ceremony the Marriage of All Things! That night man met woman again, mating as mate the clean-living beasts of the field—and thus, they thought, the spell of fertility was laid upon the waiting earth, and fine crops, rich and plentiful, assured them. Well . . . it degenerated, as things will, from a fine and free conception, to a mere excuse for wild orgies such as the Saturnalia in Rome. . . . Even, in these days, it survives faintly yet in the procession of the Blessing of the Crops, the village curé with his book and his candle, treading the ploughlands to sprinkle them with holy water. . . .'
'How annoyed he would be, the good Père Danou, if you told him he but kept alive the last memory of an antique superstition!' murmured Réné, his eyes crinkled with laughter.
The Professor nodded.
'H'm. Yes. Yet the whole world believed it once—that before the land can hope to bear good crops, to be fruitful, that it must be "christened" as it were, by the mating of man with woman in those same fields. A simple idea—a great idea—like many of the ideas that spring from the simple minds of the world—before it became complicated with theories and too-wise fools like me! Eh, my son?'
'The Professor's large hand clapped his pupil affectionately on the shoulder as he rose heavily to his feet. Screwing his eyes up, he looked at his watch....'
October: The Host's Story: Morag-of-the-Cave • (1925)
"Morag-of-the-Cave" is an ambitious and poignant story of coastal Irish folkways and legends that contain within them more than a hint of species interbreeding.
'Is that the end?' I asked the question low.
Silis shook her head.
''Twould have been kinder to her had it all ended so, poor soul. No, Ian came down to the village a dour, silent man, that had gone up the headland a lighthearted lad. Come the morning, the storm was past, and over the blue sea he rowed to find his love—or her body, as he thought. But lo, on the ledge Morag lay asleep and smiling! She stepped down into the boat with him, and when they got to shore, Ian McAlpine took her straight to the priest and bade him marry them. Aye—a great love had Ian McAlpine for Morag-of-the-Cave, for witless she was, more or less, now, and even her own folk, with the exception of her mother, turned against her. Not that Ian said aught of what he had seen—no, no—but they held that she had held converse with those that are Nameless, and so they shunned her, either in scorn or fear. . . .
'Ian bought a fine boat of his own, and all went well till her time was near, and then . . . Mother o' God, pity and forgive us all our sins! One dark night Ian knocked at my cabin door, and I opened it—and there he stood with a bundle in his arms, and the eyes of him like a man who had stood face to face with naked Terror, and remains a man and sane. . . . He walked in, and I stood quaking because of I knew not what.
'"Silis," says he, "lend me a spade."
'Oh, the stroke of that on my heart, like the clod falling on a coffin-lid!
'"A spade—Mary help you in your sorrow, Ian McAlpine," says I. "Is it your first-born son you'll be burying so soon, and that without prayer or priest to help him over the Threshold?"
'With that Ian McAlpine laughed a dreadful laugh that was like the fall of yet another and heavier clod upon the coffin of my heart, and putting his wrapped burden on the table, turned away.
'"Look, Silis Hagan—an' tell me if you can that I do wrong!"
'It was shaking my hand were as I parted the folds and looked on the little body that lay there—and it was shaking my knees were, and dry and choking my throat as I looked upon it, and looked, and looked. All the Saints protect you from such a sight, for it'd haunt you to your dying day, as it does me—as it does me! All the colour of a toad's belly it was, the dreadful pallid white of the slime-born creatures that live in the deep waters—white and blind—and the face of it with a wide gaping mouth like a bull-frog, and heavy creased lids over staring eyes that had no colour but a pin-point of green where the pupils should be. But that was all small to the crowning horror, the thick body like a square log of pallid flesh with, at each corner, it seemed, a thing like a fin of the same dreadful pale flesh, fringed with flickering tentacles that even now seemed to twitch and move in the shuddering candle-flame. I staggered and reached out blindly, sick and heaving, and in a flash Ian was at my side putting me in a chair.
'"Whist now—don't look at it again. Silis, Silis! Now you know . . . pray for me this night, pray for me, an' for the poor lost soul I left screaming on the bed. . . . Ah, Morag, mo-rùn, mo-rùn. A graidh-mo-Chridhe!'
'Snatching up the spade that was standing beside the hearth, he went to the door, hiding the muffled bundle under his coat, and the darkness swallowed him up. Only then did I remember, in the dazed horror of the moment, that round the dreadful crinkled throat of—It—I had seen the livid marks of strangling fingers. . . .'
Silis looked soberly at me.
'That's the story of Morag-of-the-Cave. A month later Ian was drowned at sea, and she left a widow. All I know is that before he went to sea again—he was fey of the sea after that, poor lad, and told me it would have him soon—he went over the island to old Father Mahoney. Old and wise he is, wiser than those clever young priests that laugh at the Powers that dwell outside Mother Church—blessings be to her—but Ian brought something back with him to bar Morag-of-the-Cave away from Those that we know of! Sure, she'll still wander all her days beside the sea, the creature, but never again has she gone a step towards the cave . . . and it's to be hoped she's working out her purgatory here, poor soul, for sure enough she paid for her sin.'
November: The Superintendent's Story: The White Cat • (1924)
A kitchen-sink look at London slum life.
'The old man's voice had dropped a shade, and there was a curiously unctuous, unpleasant quality in it as his eyes studied the child's downcast face. She flashed a glance up suddenly, stubborn for a second, and they eyed each other, the man's expression hidden from the watching woman by his heavy brows, but the child's for an instant sullen, heavy with hate. Barely a second, but the child's gaze wavered, failed and shrank into itself, and taking up the broom again, she moved wearily away.
'Glancing up, old Lidgett met Mrs Tillett's eyes—his own for the moment brightly hard, triumphant. . . . Then in a flash, the veil dropped over them, blank and expressionless as usual. Mrs Tillett, an oddly uncomfortable feeling that she had surprised something she was not meant to see, and that, moreover, old Lidgett was not pleased she had seen, moved hastily away with a hurried goodbye. Lidgett laughed grimly as he watched her go. Shuffling into his accustomed chair, he shouted a gruff order to the small figure behind.
'"Hey, you! No talking to that fat woman at the pub, d'ye hear? Nor not to anyone, abaht . . . anything, see? Else—well, you know abaht Lilly and the others . . . well, that ain't nothin' to what you'll get, so now. . . . You'll wish you was dead 'f I ever catch you squealin'! Get on with yer work and remember . . . blarsted white mouse wiv pink eyes, yeh! Ger-ron wiv it!"
'Slink's Alley grew accustomed very quickly to Bina. At first her appearance was the signal for roars of mirth, and the local wags vied with each other in devising fresh names for the shrinking, white-haired creature.
'Mrs Tillett came on a group one day round her, Joe Higginson and his pal, Swell Sam, holding her head back between their great hands, pointing out to the crowd those strange dreadful pink eyes.
'Mrs Tillett had good, strong arms, and the cuffs she administered were singularly adequate. The publican's wife being something of a power in the land, Bina was left, after this little adventure, severely alone from the bullying point of view. Mrs Tillett, warm with fury, had marched off with the child, presented her with a plate of broken meats behind the bar, and after this had been devoured with a pathetic swiftness that spoke of more than poor fare at Lidgett's board, taken her back to her master and administered a criticism of his manner of life and character that would have withered anyone less hardened than old Mat Lidgett.
'He retorted with remarks more pointed still, and there was a royal row, in consequence of which Bina was in future sent to The Carriers' Arms in Luck Lane, some way off, to fetch her master's supper beer, and even fewer and farther between became the small, occasional kindnesses shown her by the publican's fat wife. She struck up a curious friendship with the lean, forlorn white cat that belonged to Ma Tonks, an unpleasant old woman who divided her time between one "drunk", getting over that, and preparing for the next "drunk".
'Children obey the herd instinct that avoids the odd and uncanny even more ruthlessly than their elders, and after the first excitement of curiosity had died down, they left the white-haired child severely alone. Very rarely in the day did Bina appear, but she became a familiar sight at night as she wandered, the cat at her heels, down by the darkly lapping water below the piers, or sat crouched, knees to chin, staring across the glimmering tide towards the farther shore, its packed warehouses, tenements, factories black against the star-strewn sky, its riverside lights reflected in broken yellow gleams that made a path to where she sat.
December: The Engineer's Story: The Haunted Saucepan • (1922)
"The Haunted Saucepan" is a fine thriller about murder afterward coming to light. Lawrence's skill as a writer carries the day.
....The open door made me jump for a second, but of course I said 'draughts' and thought so – I paused a second to light a cigarette – and the match dropped from my fingers and sputtered out upon the carpet. I held the unlighted cigarette between my fingers as I stared. As I am a living man, this is what I saw – or thought I saw. The saucepan – the little one on the stove, nearest the door – seemed to lift its lid a shade – it seemed to tilt, ever so slightly, cautiously, and from beneath its tilted lid, it looked at me! Yes, I suppose it doesn't sound as horrible as I want it to, but I swear to you that was the most eerie thing I ever saw, or want to see ... For a second I stood cold and dumb, my mouth sticky with fright – somehow the utter banality of the thing made it more terrifying – then I swore at myself, strode into the kitchen and seized the saucepan, holding it to the light.
It was, of course, a mere trick of light – I remember noticing the previous night how brilliantly the moonlight streamed into the kitchen – but good heavens, it had shaken me for a minute, positively! That attack last night must have upset my nerves more than I knew – Lord, what a fool! I put the saucepan back, laughing heartily, and going into the hall, picked up my letters again, still grinning at my own folly. I glanced back at the kitchen as I went along to my room – I could still see the stove and the silent row of pans upon it. The lid of the little saucepan was still askew – it still had the absurd air of watching me stealthily from beneath it! There almost seemed a menace in its very stillness ...
22 February 2021