There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Four strange stories by John Galsworthy (1867-1933)

....He pinched himself — his thoughts were becoming so queer! He remembered that once, when his liver was out of order, trees had seemed to him like solid, tall diseases — bulbous, scarred, cavernous, witch-armed, fungoid emanations of the earth. Well, so they were! And he was among them, on a snowy pitch-black night, engaged in this death-struggle! 


-- "Timber" (1920)




The Black Godmother (1912)


"The Black Godmother" is a second-hand anecdote by the narrator's friend. It begins:


     Sitting out on the lawn at tea with our friend and his retriever, we had been discussing those massacres of the helpless which had of late occurred, and wondering that they should have been committed by the soldiery of so civilised a State, when, in a momentary pause of our astonishment, our friend, who had been listening in silence, crumpling the drooping soft ear of his dog, looked up and said, "The cause of atrocities is generally the violence of Fear. Panic's at the back of most crimes and follies."


The friend has a theory about sources of human violence. He describes an attack he and another man carried out on a dog they worried might be rabid. He concludes: "Fear! It's the black godmother of all damnable things!"



The Voice of ...! (1912)


Frâulein Tizi's music hall debut concludes to thunderous applause. Then, from the balcony, an unnatural light transfixes her. A commanding voice booms out:


     "Woman! Blasphemous creature! You have profaned Beauty!"

     There stood the beautiful creature, motionless, staring up into the lime-light. And the voice from the gallery was heard again.

     "The blind applaud you; it is natural. But you — unnatural! Go!" The beautiful creature threw up her head, as though struck below the jaw, and with hands flung out, rushed from the stage. Then, amidst the babel of a thousand cries—"Chuck the brute out!"

     "Throw him over!"

     "Where's the manager?"

     "Encore, encore!" — the manager himself came out from the wings. He stood gazing up into the stream of lime-light, and there was instant silence.


A near-riot ensues, with management and staff unable to find the source of the strange light or the voice.


Galsworthy nicely wraps this uncanny conundrum in the everyday backstage trials of the proprietor of "The Paradise" theater and his lieutenants..



A Simple Tale (1914)


The narrator recounts a nighttime encounter with a stranger on the streets of London.


     "And, if you think of it, monsieur, it is well like that. Provided, there exists always that good man of a Wandering Jew, he will certainly have become as Christ, in all these centuries of being refused from door to door. Yes, yes, he must well have acquired charity the most profound that this world has ever seen, in watching the crushing virtue of others. All those gentry, of whom he asks night by night to let him rest in their doorways, they tell him where to go, how to ménager his life, even offer him money, as I had seen; but, to let him rest, to trust him in their houses — this strange old man — as a fellow, a brother voyager — that they will not; it is hardly in the character of good citizens in a Christian country. And, as I have indicated to you, this Old of mine, cracked as he was, thinking himself that Jew who refused rest to the good Christ, had become, in being refused for ever, the most Christ-like man I have ever encountered on this earth, which, according to me, is composed almost entirely of those who have themselves the character of the Wandering Jew.".


"A Simple Tale" is a very short story recounting an experience the reader might interpret as strange, uncanny, or just odd.



Timber (1920)


A spectacularly good piece of strange fiction. I am not a regular reader of Galsworthy, but I am impressed by the great skill he shows here. The sylvan sublimity he achieves makes "Timber" a story to treasure.


....He had never before been amongst his timber in the dusk, and he found the shapes of the confounded trees more weird, and as if menacing, that he had ever dreamed of. He stumbled quickly on in and out of them among the undergrowth, without coming to a ride.


Landowner Sir Arthur Hirries, Baronet, takes a late afternoon winter walk through ancestral woodland on his property. He has just sold it for a very high price to the British government, then waging the Great War. Perhaps Sir Arthur got a "patrio-profiteering" price? Does this fact cause him to get lost in the thick spread of timber?


Galsworthy handles gathering darkness and growing  cold with expert craftsmanship. Sir Arthur's complacency and confidence are expertly stripped away.


     The path was a regular will o' the wisp. He must make a bee line of it through the undergrowth into another ride! He had never before been amongst his timber in the dusk, and he found the shapes of the confounded trees more weird, and as if menacing, that he had ever dreamed of. He stumbled quickly on in and out of them among the undergrowth, without coming to a ride.

     'Here I am stuck in this damned wood!' he thought. To call these formidably encircling shapes 'a wood' gave him relief. After all, it was his wood, and nothing very untoward could happen to a man in his own wood, however dark it might get; he could not be more than a mile and a half at the outside from his dining-room! He looked at his watch, whose hands he could just see—nearly half-past seven! The sleet had become snow, but it hardly fell on him, so thick was the timber just here. But he had no overcoat, and suddenly he felt that first sickening little drop in his chest which presages alarm. Nobody knew he was in this damned wood! And in a quarter of an hour it would be black as your hat! He must get on and out! The trees amongst which he was stumbling produced quite a sick feeling now in one who hitherto had never taken trees seriously. What monstrous growths they were! The thought that seeds, tiny seeds or saplings, planted by his ancestors, could attain such huge impending and imprisoning bulk—the ghostly great growths, mounting up to heaven and shutting off this world, exasperated and unnerved him. He began to run, caught his foot in a root, and fell flat on his face. The cursed trees seemed to have a down on him! Rubbing elbows and forehead with his snow-wetted hands, he leaned against a trunk to get his breath, and summon the sense of direction to his brain. Once as a young man he had been 'bushed' at night in Vancouver Island; quite a scary business! But he had come out all right, though his camp had been the only civilised spot within a radius of twenty miles. And here he was, on his own estate, within a mile or two of home, getting into a funk. It was childish! And he laughed. The wind answered, sighing and threshing in the tree tops. There must be a regular blizzard blowing now, and, to judge by the cold, from the north—but whether north-east or north-west was the question. Besides, how keep definite direction without a compass in the dark? The timber, too, with its thick trunks, diverted the wind into keen, directionless draughts. He looked up, but could make nothing of the two or three stars that he could see. It was a mess! And he lighted a second cigar with some difficulty, for he had begun to shiver. The wind in this blasted wood cut through his Norfolk jacket and crawled about his body, which had become hot from his exertions, and now felt clammy and half-frozen. This would mean pneumonia, if he didn't look out! And, half feeling his way from trunk to trunk, he started on again, but for all he could tell he might be going round in a circle, might even be crossing rides without realising, and again that sickening drop occurred in his chest. He stood still and shouted. He had the feeling of shouting into walls of timber, dark and heavy, which threw the sound back at him.

     'Curse you!' he thought. 'Wish I'd sold you six months ago!' The wind fleered and mowed in the tree tops; and he started off again at a run in that dark wilderness; till, hitting his head against a low branch, he fell, stunned. He lay several minutes unconscious, came to himself deadly cold, and struggled up on to his feet.






Jay

25 September 2021



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