"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Monday, February 8, 2021

A Fire of Driftwood by D. K. Broster (1932)

A Fire of Driftwood by D. K. Broster (1932)

A Fire of Driftwood is an evocative title. To me it speaks of summer dusk on a nearly empty and isolated Cape Cod beach, of a fire whose flames are whipped and twisted by wind, of laughing and contented voices before storytelling commences.

Broster (1877-1950) gives us no driftwood fires. The title only hints, adumbrating an oneiric topos shot-through with the cunning of history.

Most of the stories in A Fire of Driftwood are not supernatural, weird, or strange. Many are historical: Broster was a fine historical novelist in the manner of J. Meade Falkner and Hugh Walpole, and stories like "Our Lady of Succour" are worth the time of any reader hungry for deft melodrama.

Four uncanny stories

All Souls' Day

"All Soul's Day" begins by striking an antiquarian note:

     The old priest was out when we called at the presbytère, but we were told by his housekeeper that he would soon be back, and were invited to wait in the parlour. We had come there, Horsfield and I, because when our friend Travers was working at the history of the Morvan, he had said that the Curé of Chatin-en-Brénil had been extremely kind to him, and was very pleased to see visitors, especially English visitors, in his quiet corner of that green Burgundian land with its astonishing memorials of the Middle Ages, those little walled towns and the great abbey church which is one of the glories of France. So Horsfield and I, who were doing a walking tour from Sens to Dijon by way of Auxerre, had settled to call upon the old man as we passed through Chatin-en-Brénil.

     Nor were we sorry to rest awhile in that dark and very cool parlour, hung with a few bad sacred prints and having straight-backed chairs arranged with precision below them. After a little, however, Horsfield got up, drawn as he always is by the presence of a bookcase, and went to the small row of shelves on the wall by the window.

     "Our Curé has one or two good bindings here," he remarked. "In fact, if this isn't a seventeenth-century English tooling I'll eat my hat!" Moved by the holy enthusiasm of the bibliophile he stretched up a hand, plucked forth a book, surveyed and opened it. "Look!" he cried triumphantly, and spread it open on the table in the middle of the room.

The Cure tells his visitors the story of a 17th century English gentleman:

     "This book, then, was given to a member of my family by its owner, Mr. Fane, an English gentleman of great gifts both of mind and body, a very noble person—une âme d'élite, as we say—whose good qualities were like to suffer ruin through a disaster which befell him in early manhood. This calamity, brought about through no fault of his own, plunged him into circumstances which were leading him in a direction very different from the path wherein he had early set his steps, and to which, by the mercy of God, he afterwards returned, through what strange agency you shall hear.

     "About the end of the year 1629 Mr. Fane, then a little more than thirty years of age, was visiting Paris on his return from a foreign tour, when he had the misfortune to incur the enmity of a certain Chevalier de Crussol, a man of notoriously evil life. They had met but a few times when a violent quarrel took place between them, in which Mr. Fane, so far as human judgment goes, had undoubted right upon his side. As a result of this disagreement Mr. Fane held himself in readiness to receive a challenge from the Chevalier. The expected cartel was never sent, but M. de Crussol took other means to avenge himself. As the Englishman was returning alone at night from a ball he was set upon by the Chevalier and several of his lackeys, who, after a brief struggle, left him for dead in the streete.

Broster carefully builds up the layers of historical verisimilitude: Fane and de Crussol behave like men of their time, and their motivations in life (and after life) are perfectly conveyed with great economy.

The crisis and its consequences, its implications for Fane and de Crussol, are steeped in the church observances and traditions of the time, and are beautifully rendered.

*   *   *

The Crib

Killing time before a crucial job interview on Christmas Eve, Miss Bellamy visits St. Perpetua's church to get in out of the cold. 

She overhears two workmen setting up a nativity screen:

     "I am so glad that we have been able to get a more appropriate figure of the Holy Child," said one voice. "It is preposterous to be obliged to use, as we generally do, the image of an infant of about two years of age, instead of one even approximately like a new-born baby. At any rate, this doesn't look more than a few months old. I had it specially cast, you know."

     Miss Bellamy glanced round and saw two priests in cassocks, both young, and rather alike, save that he who had spoken wore his biretta—not that she knew its name—more on the back of his head than the other, and seemed to be invested with the greater authority.

     "About the positions, now, Woodward," went on this latter, stepping back, and viewing the Crib with a critical eye. "Somehow the composition doesn't seem to me to be quite right. I believe St. Joseph has got out of place. Now last year we had him—where exactly was it we had him? If we were to move that shepherd a trifle. No, it is the Blessed Mother herself that is wrong. One can't visualise her kneeling just there."

      A pause, while he shifted the figure.

      "If you ask me," said he addressed as Woodward, "I think—though I don't know much about babies—that if I had been Our Lady I wouldn't have let the Child a moment out of my arms, especially if He had to lie on straw like that! I always fancy I should like a Crib where she holds Him, not worships Him, newborn as He is, from a distance."

     "Then you would lose the full idea of adoration."

     "Not a bit!" returned the younger man stoutly. "Mothers don't need to set their babies on the floor to adore them. They can accomplish that quite as well with them in their laps. My married sister. . . ."

     "The cases are hardly similar," observed the elder priest dryly. "Also you know quite well that you are using the word 'adore' with a different connotation. What a bother! I've fetched down this bit of back-cloth. Give me the hammer and a couple of tacks, there's a good fellow."

     Knocking followed, and then the younger man said reflectively, looking at the Christ-child: "I suppose it's not irreverent to imagine that Our Lord was just as much trouble as any other baby. They seem to like that stage so much—mothers, I mean—the stage when their children are quite tiny and can't do anything for themselves, and must, one would think, be a horrible nuisance. My sister used to lament no end when my nephew passed out of it, and said she would give worlds to have him back again—like that, you know. I can't help thinking that Our Lady must still sometimes—no, that would shock you!"

     He had at least succeeded in shocking Miss Bellamy, to whom it did not seem quite decent to regard the Virgin as a real person, who, nineteen hundred years ago, had had feelings like any other woman. The theme, however, was not pursued, but when, a moment or two afterwards, she heard the authoritative young man, now displeased with the type of palm tree depicted on the canvas back-cloth, launch into the impressions of Bethlehem which he had gathered on his recent visit to Palestine, she began to wish that he had remained there, and, instead of moving further away, she got up and left the church.

The supernatural event takes place several hours later. Miss Bellamy returns to St. Perpetua's after triumphing at her job interview and thus assuring financial security for herself and her family.

     And thus she was witness of a thing as strange to her as it was to the senior curate. For as they went down the aisle they both saw the woman kneeling before the Crib lean over the faldstool and put out a hand towards the little plaster baby. The priest in front of Miss Bellamy hesitated; then he went quickly forward.

     "I am afraid that you mustn't touch the figures," he said gently.

     The woman drew back her hand at once, but did not move from her knees.

     "Some poor, half-crazed creature who has lost her child, probably," thought Miss Bellamy, with a pang of pity. "I expect the clergyman thinks so, too. I suppose he will turn her out, especially if he is going to lock up."

     But if such were the senior curate's intentions he thought better of it, and all he did was to say: "Haven't you been here rather a long time? There are others who may want to say a prayer before the Crib." He half glanced round at Miss Bellamy, who had no such purpose.

     The kneeling woman seemed not to hear. Her hands were now lightly clasped in front of her on the faldstool; her face was hidden by the folds that fell round it, but she seemed to be gazing straight and absorbedly at the Child. It was impossible to know whether she were old or young, even whether she were or were not "a lady," a point about which Miss Bellamy was something particular. It was true that she had a shawl over her head like a poor woman; or was it a mantilla, in which, so Miss Bellamy had heard, ladies were accustomed to worship abroad, in Roman Catholic countries? At any rate, it was very graceful, and completely baffling.

     As she neither moved nor spoke, the priest gave her a last puzzled, compassionate glance, then, lifting his biretta, bowed to the Crib and went out.

     This surprised Miss Bellamy a good deal; had he, perhaps, thought her responsible for this poor woman? Since, however, he was evidently not going to lock up the church, she herself need not leave it yet, and so she sat down in the nearest row of chairs and returned to the contemplation of her good fortune. To think that she would at last be able to give her mother one of those nice quilted dressing-gowns of Japanese silk; she would get her a fairly expensive one, as it would probably wear longer and thus be cheaper in the end. Then that really stylish coat and skirt in New Oxford Street; or would it be better to go on with her present costume and purchase instead a small neck-fur? A fur gave such a finish, besides being warm; and those known as coney-seal or seal-coney. . . .

     Miss Bellamy pulled herself up. It was not for such reflections as these that she had come into a church. If she must think of such unsuitable things within its walls she had better go. She rose, ashamed; but, having extricated herself from the row of chairs, stopped dead.

     The worshipper at the Crib, whose presence she had temporarily forgotten, was kneeling now between the lighted candles with both arms passionately outstretched, and there was that in the attitude which pierced the little teacher, unimaginative as she was, with an instant feeling of being in the presence of something that she could not fathom—something great and even sacred. Was she a mother who had lost her child? The pose suggested neither grief nor madness. And, just as Miss Bellamy was wondering whether she could tiptoe gently past without being observed, the woman rose from the faldstool altogether.

     "She is going to take up the Child!" thought Miss Bellamy, with a leap of the pulses. And with that she remembered the conversation overheard this morning, and illumination seemed to come to her. This was a mother—a little unbalanced, no doubt—who yearned to see her baby as it had been when it was small, and the plaster image, bearing perhaps some chance likeness, had been the nearest fulfilment of her desire. And though Miss Bellamy was not conscious of a thwarted motherhood in her own barren life, though she held that people nowadays made far too much fuss about babies, there was in her heart some chord that responded, almost with pain, to the beautiful movement with which the veiled woman stooped, put out her arms and gathered up the Christ-child into them from the straw, and stood there, her head bowed to the cold cheek as though it were alive and breathing, and there were no one else in the world but it and she.

     "It might really be her own!" thought Miss Bellamy. Her eyes began suddenly to fill with tears, and she sought hurriedly in her bag for her handkerchief.

     It was at that moment that the woman turned round, the little plaster baby in her arms, and, at last, Miss Bellamy saw her fully. . . .

     The candles, the dark church, swam together in a golden haze.

     "Oh, do You feel like that in heaven?" she gasped, and, falling on her knees, hid her face.

*   *   *


"Clairvoyance" is a masterpiece of the uncanny. Initially Broster touches upon the consequences of a tragedy, then goes back to narrate it chronologically. The events unfold with a sense of dreamlike inevitability and end on a crescendo of matchless ghastliness.

*   *   *

The Window

A charming story of ancestral memory, chance, and accident. Broster gives the characters and situation enough space to develop, and complicates the story in a perfectly enriched series of events. The use of coincidence in the conclusion reinforces the story's supernatural resonance.

*   *   *

Matt Cowan has an excellent post examining stories in Broster's second collection Couching at the Door. It can be read here.

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8 February 2021

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