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

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

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Terror and sublimity: All Night at Mr. Stanyhurst's (1933)

'I think there may be a call on your fortitude tonight, my son. The tale you're to hear is not to be told in an hour, and is in part full of tragedy. Are you disposed to a late sitting?'

All Night at Mr. Stanyhurst's

by Hugh Edwards 

(Jonathan Cape, 1933; 2nd edition available here.)

When Ian Fleming, Mark Valentine, and Michael Dirda are of one voice about an obscure novel, it's like ignoring a papal bull to turn a blind eye. 

Valentine gives all the facts in this 2016 article, later published in the excellent 2021 collection Sphinxes and Obelisks. Dirda's comments on the blog post demonstrate the power and contagious allure of an ignored masterpiece.

Fleming writes about his own sorrows and frustrations getting the book back in print here.

*     *     *

All Night at Mr. Stanyhurst's is like no other work of twentieth century fiction I can recall. It is not novel-length, yet it had the good fortune of two hardback editions. That it, like the treasures it describes, has been lost only increases the drama and gravity of the reader's emotional experience on initial reading.

The tale (there is no more accurate description of its form) recounts an evening in London during the regency. Stanyhurst, a wealthy gent, and his mistress Lucy, entertain a French priest at dinner. (It is the day the capital learns the war between England and France has ended). The trio are joined after dinner by the sailor Thomas Pidgeon, last survivor of the Blanchefleur

(The mirroring/doubling of the names Lucy and Blanchefleur should be noted).

     'You may conceivably hear, I think, monsieur, soon or late the story's not to be told by myself a heartbreaking account of sorrow and misfortune that should knock on your soul. These poor gewgaws' the Abbe, with a kind of veneration, slowly bowed the head over the shabby little fan and discoloured buckles 'are eloquent of bitter failure. They summon for me no picture of bygone folly and light happiness. The very uses to which the pretty ornaments, now lamentably vain, were once applied coquetry, doubtless, and a girl's slippers pointed in the minuet render the toys this evening all the more desolate.' The priest paused and seemed to listen. 'Is that rain?' he asked.

     'A shower upon the windows, I think,' the other agreed. He put out a hand. 'May I look?' he said.

     When the Abbe had given him the fan, Stanyhurst spread the damaged instrument with slow, gradual care until the frail chicken-skin material was taut along delicate ivory handles, and a bright, hand-illuminated scene, exquisite and small, disclosed lovers kissing and a leering Pan making music for the embrace, on pipes that, the parchment here being holed, were invisible. Cluny Stanyhurst closed the fan, turned it over, and expanded it painstakingly in the opposite direction. A little coloured spectacle of mythical figures a fondling god and goddess reclining on a cloud below a flying love was now revealed. Stanyhurst cautiously shut, and then returned, the expensive and injured trifle.

     'You are perhaps disappointed, monsieur?' The priest was calm.

     'Certainly, mon pere' Cluny Stanyhurst admitted smiling. 'I need not conceal from you,' he continued, 'that young women, apparently demure, possess and use fans that may be artfully spread to show either merely pretty or else wantonly naughty scenes. I hoped, I confess, in opening that frail bauble, to surprise one of the latter. Such a picture is not displeasing especially when exhibited for one's happiness by shy young beauty. I allude, of course, in an indefinite pronoun, only to myself, Monsieur l'Abbe. May I be permitted to learn how these worn, engaging, female vanities came into your hands?'

     The priest seemed, for a while, not to have heard; and in the quiet room a coal dropped in the fender, and a purring of flames was dimly audible. The fire had not been replenished, but was yet too full of strength in a mild night that made the comfort of a grate only a piece of empty ceremony.

     The patter of rain and the dreamy sweetness of blossoms seemed in some secret way to commingle.

     'This little fan and these tarnished slipperbuckles,' the Abbe now said, giving his host a mournful smile, 'come, monsieur, out of that great East Indiaman, the Blanchefleur. A total loss, an utter wreck, my son, Mary save us. The fine ship, the pride of owners, officers and hands, has been broken in pieces among surges and rocks. The coast of Africa, a savage place. I only know of a locality called Zaambas because Christ's pity! it's there the Blanchefleur struck and foundered.'

     Cluny Stanyhurst stared and went white. 'God!' he said.

     'Just so, my son.'

     Host and guest looked at each other in silence. Then, 'Do you know what I know?' Stanyhurst, in a low voice, asked.

     'I think, monsieur, you're referring to a priceless fabric the rumour of which is spread over the whole earth, Marco Polo stood once beneath the shadow of that splendour, and was afraid. Nothing so peerless, he believed and wrote, had ever been stretched above a traveller's head before. The glory of what is known as the Fabulous Canopy, beneath which the Moguls sat in Diwan, became henceforth to the Italian voyager a miraculous thing. And, in Venice, he could not believe he had ever been in Hind and Howrah and privileged to look upon that wonder. Later merchants, scholars, and wandering priests, have brought to Europe reports of a dais of alabaster, jade, and marble; of a throne wrought in carven picture work, and inlaid with unimaginable gems. But their private thoughts were not of palace halls builded among red-stone pavements, flowering pleasances, and the cool plash of fountains. Nor even of a throne. They were transported and lost, monsieur, in a dream of the Fabulous Canopy. And that Canopy, my son, was carried in the hold of the Blanchefleur'

     Stanyhurst, sunk in pale and frowning cogitation, roused himself to ask: 'And the thing is drowned in the sea? Monsieur l'Abbe, pardon the question, but are you certain of your information?'

     The priest made a decisive movement of the head. 'I have it, monsieur, from a sure source,' he stated. 'The Blanchefour is foundered.'

     "And nothing's been salvaged?' Stanyhurst asked in a voice that held the note of awe.

     The Abbe, gently, briefly, and with a gesture of the upturned palm, indicated the soiled trinkets on the table, and said: 'You see, monsieur.'

     'Blessed God!' Stanyhurst whispered in a sort of fear. 'A pair of shoebuckles and a fan!'

     Rain could now be heard steadily falling, and the liquid, hammering sound seemed to echo and blend with a tinkling music, faint and agreeably melancholy, that Lucy was playing in some nearby room. The Abbe, to this accompaniment of spinet and water, might have been chanting, as he quoted in a raised and solemn voice:

     'Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,

     Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,

     All scattered in the bottom of the sea'

     "Christ,' Stanyhurst said. He took a full draught of claret, and gasped. 'I'd like, Monsieur l'Abbe,' he resumed, 'to be permitted to confide in you to reveal something that, very likely, should be kept secret. Wholly a personal matter.'

     Stanyhurst at this point was made aware that the black man was standing behind him, Joel had uttered an involuntary, profound, weary sigh. His master threw a backward glance at the footman, and then abruptly nodded towards the door. The negro, in his apricot-coloured livery, moved thither, turned and deeply bowed, and so left.

     'Can you,' Stanyhurst now asked, 'from where you sit, read the face of the clock, Monsieur Abbe? My own eyesight, although it annoys me to recognize the fact, is beginning to demand the use of a glass.'

     'And I must use spectacles, monsieur. But I have a watch here,' The Abbe drew the instrument from the fob, and briefly manipulated a piece of machinery. There followed, sweet, silvery, and small, the striking of nine minute notes. 'Nine o'clock not long ago, I hazard a guess is passed, monsieur,' he announced.

     "We have, then, time for a little further talk. Madame, I think, is very content to sit and sing for a while. What I felt I might divulge, mon pere, is this. I sank—the term is not exact—a considerable sum—not enough, of course, to embarrass my estate, but still, even in the case of a rich man, an amount of substantial importance in the adventure, yes, of stealing, and bringing home in the Blanchefleur, that unbelievable treasure of which we were lately speaking. I was, in fact, intentionally—and happily, I may—add assisting to accomplish a crime. To be plain, there were certain Army officers, and a number of Indian officials, who must comprehensively be bribed' The servants of John Company were all secretly and necessarily, of course committed to the iniquity. We may waive, I suppose, the responsibilities of those others. In my own case, can it, Monsieur l'Abbe, be taken for admitted that Nemesis has watched and spoken?' Stanyhurst coldly smiled.

     'That, my son, is to be left only to the judgment of our Divine Lord,' The priest looked, with mild gravity, at his host. There was silence for the space of a few minutes, and then Cluny Stanyhurst ceased to smile. The austerity, at once gentle and very serious, in the expression of the priest, was immediately relaxed. And now, with a measure of animation, he began to talk.

     'I have,' he said, 'been, in this matter of a ship, intrigued enough to try to discover what cargo, apart from that splendid and peculiar Trophy, the Blanchefleur was carrying. Monsieur, I do not know if I am imparting information already within your knowledge. The vessel, I find,' he resumed, after Cluny Stanyhurst had committed himself only to an indifferent movement of the hand, 'was bearing precious stones, bullion, ivory, and further treasure, to the value of nearly three millions sterling. But here is what will refresh my memory.' The Abbe unfolded the small square of paper he had taken from a pocket, and read:

     'Stored in the lazaret above 800,000

     'Gold bars, more than 900 in number above 600,000

     'Jewels, secured in boxes above 900,000

     'A great fortune to rest in the depth of the sea, my son,' the priest sadly announced.

     'And that inventory contains but a portion of it.' The sound of rain kept rising and subsiding.

     'A very pretty sum, no doubt,' Stanyhurst carelessly admitted, 'but what I'm curious to know is, if shoebuckles and a fan are to be recovered out of a sunken ship, why not some part at least of the vast riches? The crew and passengers, all are perished?'

     'As far as is known to myself, monsieur, only one person is escaped out of those extraordinarily bitter trials the survivors must endure in attempting to reach civilization. All that region of coast proved to be either terrifying wilderness haunted by savage animals, or else occasional sparse cultivation raised about the kraals of brutish aboriginals.'

     'My God, Monsieur l'Abbe, I'd be exceeding willing to meet that informant of yours. This matter touches my poor self very nearly. It's to be presumed that what you've told me was derived from only one source. That lonely survivor, I mean. Is this correct, monpere?'

     'He and no other, my son.'

     'And this person is to be found and interrogated?'

     'This very night, and in this house, if you will, monsieur. But interrogations, in point of fact, are not here applicable. Alas, the poor young man is only too anxious to relieve a heavy woe in talking. In telling all he knows, monsieur. But I must caution you that patience is to be exercised. If you are to hear the story of what, I believe, may be considered a prodigy in unusual history, and one of the most melancholy in the world if you are to listen to this account of frustrated will, broken endeavour, and immense unhappiness then, monsieur, be prepared to attend, as I have done, from beginning to conclusion, to a singular and mournful narrative of heroism and, yes, perhaps guilt. To the questionings of a soul, monsieur, in a torment even so of remorse and sorrow.' The priest regarded with an inattentive gaze the wine in the delicate glass, raised it and seemed about to drink, and then replaced the champagne untasted on the board. 'A haunted man,' he said with the absent voice and eyes of one looking into great despondency.

     Stanyhurst drank; and when he put down the empty glass, the pale cheek was flushed, and the eye kindling and a little wild. 'By God, monpere!' he cried, 'you've goaded me in the quick, and brought, I may let you know, curiosity to a point not to be refused.' The man was undoubtedly a trifle tipsy. He charged his glass again, and again drank. 'Is it conceivable I'm soon to hear the tale of the loss of the Blanchefleur?' he continued, staring at the priest; 'that one who's saved himself out of that wreck is to be here tonight? That I'm to learn how the miraculous Canopy went down and was drowned? Come, Monsieur l'Abbe, you've been insinuating what puts a man in a rack to discover more. Tell me, please, if the thing I'm conjecturing is true. You are in earnest in the assertion that a sailor out of the foundered Blanchefleur is to arrive at this house? And tonight?'

     'Tonight, my son, as I have said.' Cluny Stanyhurst was happy. The face that had been heated and strange, was at once composed. 'Good,' he said. A demeanour calm and remote, that, in fact, the man had never entirely abandoned, even under quick excitement, was, beneath the air of cool satisfaction, changeless henceforward. 'I thought I'd schooled myself to accept anything anything, evil or fortunate, in the world with unruffled equanimity,' Stanyhurst proceeded, 'and yet, Monsieur l'Abbe, just now I so far discarded principle as to betray agitation. Vulgarity! It must never occur again, I think. I'm not trying to excuse myself when I say the news I've heard tonight's been in the character of a facer. My father took far worse, and was always impassive. Behind you, mon pere, hangs a portrait by Adamson of that estimable officer of the Honourable East India Company, whom I admire only for this that he was able to preserve a blank, still face during the almost supernatural gibes, cold as snow, and cutting as knives, of his beautiful young wife, my mother. Emotion, he taught me, is to be deprecated. He learned the doctrine—it's implicit in Buddhism—in India. Stoic fortitude, one might call it, I daresay.'

     'I think there may be a call on your fortitude tonight, my son. The tale you're to hear is not to be told in an hour, and is in part full of tragedy. Are you disposed to a late sitting?'

     'I come, Monsieur l'Abbe,' Clunyhurst explained, glancing at the portrait, 'of a sire of expensive and hideous tastes. At the age of fifty weary, no doubt, of the once fascinating and curious practices of nautch girls and costly Mongolian dolls he leaves Khota-Pagur, comes home, and marries a lovely schoolgirl of fifteen—my sainted and peculiarly detestable mother. Your host, mon pere, has inherited from both parents a caprice to salute sunrise in the dress in which he's supped. The morning, it's been discovered, is not too repulsive a time in which to sleep.'

     'I'll too keep vigil, monsieur,' the other amiably replied, 'but not, I fancy, for the same purpose as yourself. And my daughter, Madame Blanchefleur? I think Madame may perchance care to hear a story at once sad, tragic, and strange. We are told by Aristotle that the heart should be cleansed by fear and compassion. But perhaps Madame would wish to retire to bed?'

*     *     *

Thomas Pidgeon arrives and recounts the loss of the Blanchefleur and the harrowing fate of its shipwrecked survivors. The impact of his story on Lucy and Stanyhurst, and on the reader, is equal parts terror and sublimity.

'Nemesis has watched and spoken'


12 September 2021

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