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

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

Sunday, December 19, 2021

The arrow of coincidence: Moonfleet (1898)

'….'Twas you who first spoke of a curse upon the jewel, and I laughed at that as being a childish tale. But now I cannot tell; for ever since we first scented this treasure luck has run against us, John; yes, run against us very strong; and here we are, flying from home, called outlaws, and with blood upon our hands. Not that blood frightens me, for I have stood face to face with men in fair fight, and never felt a death-blow given so weigh on my soul; but these two men came to a tricksy kind of end, and yet I could not help it. 'Tis true that all my life I've served the Contraband, but no man ever knew me do a foul action; and now I do not like that men should call me felon, and like it less that they should call thee felon too. Perhaps there may be after all some curse that hangs about this stone, and leads to ruin those that handle it. I cannot say, for I am not a Parson Glennie in these things; but Blackbeard in an evil mood may have tied the treasure up to be a curse to any that use it for themselves. What do we want with this thing at all? I have got money to be touched at need; we may lie quiet this side the Channel, where thou shalt learn an honest trade, and when the mischief has blown over we will go back to Moonfleet. So let the jewel be, John; shall we not let the jewel be?'

     He spoke earnestly, and most earnestly at the end, taking me by the hand and looking me full in the face. But I could not look him back again, and turned my eyes away, for I was wilful, and would not bring myself to let the diamond go. Yet all the while I thought that what he said was true, and I remembered that sermon that Mr Glennie preached, saying that life was like a 'Y', and that to each comes a time when two ways part, and where he must choose whether he will take the broad and sloping road or the steep and narrow path. So now I guessed that long ago I had chosen the broad road, and now was but walking farther down it in seeking after this evil treasure, and still I could not bear to give all up, and persuaded myself that it was a child's folly to madly fling away so fine a stone. So instead of listening to good advice from one so much older than me, I set to work to talk him over, and persuaded him that if we got the diamond again, and ever could sell it, we would give the money to build up the Mohune almshouses, knowing well in my heart that I never meant to do any such thing. Thus at the last Elzevir, who was the stub-bornest of men, and never yielded, was overborne by his great love to me, and yielded here….

Readers who are unfamiliar with the novel may prefer to read the below after reading Moonfleet.

Moonfleet by J. Meade Falkner (1898)  is a satisfying work of adventure literature further enriched by uncanny grace notes that resonate beyond the scope of a mere "smugglers' tale." 


Social life in benighted Moonfleet village 1757 is centered on the Why Not? Inn, proprietor Elzevir Block. As the action begins, narrator John Trenchard informs us Block's teenage son David has been killed by magistrate Maskew, whose forces caught the boy and his comrades landing contraband.

Trenchard recalls:

I have peeped through the red curtains and watched Elzevir Block and Ratsey [the sexton] playing backgammon at the trestle-table by the fire. It was on the trestle-table that Block had afterwards laid out his son's dead body, and some said they had looked through the window at night and seen the father trying to wash the blood-matting out of the boy's yellow hair, and heard him groaning and talking to the lifeless clay as if it could understand.

Father-son theme-and-variation gives Moonfleet emotional compression and heft:  John Trenchard is a boy with no parents who gains a patient and loyal father in Elzevir Block. Block "adopts" Trenchard in the heat of action and never questions the choice.

After ten years' absence from Moonfleet, Block and Trenchard return in the teeth of storm and shipwreck. Block dies making sure Trenchard reaches shore.

     Thus we came to the Why Not? and there set him down. The inn had not been let, as I learned afterwards, since Maskew died; and they had put a fire in it last night for the first time, knowing that the brig would be wrecked, and thinking that some might come off with their lives and require tending. The door stood open, and they carried him into the parlour, where the fire was still burning, and laid him down on the trestle-table, covering his face and body with the sail. This done they all stood round a little while, awkwardly enough, as not knowing what to do; and then slipped away one by one, because grief is a thing that only women know how to handle, and they wanted to be back on the beach to get what might be from the wreck. Last of all went Master Ratsey, saying, he saw that I would as lief be alone, and that he would come back before dark.

     So I was left alone with my dead friend, and with a host of bitterest thoughts. The room had not been cleaned; there were spider-webs on the beams, and the dust stood so thick on the window-panes as to shut out half the light. The dust was on everything: on chairs and tables, save on the trestle-table where he lay. 'Twas on this very trestle they had laid out David's body; 'twas in this very room that this still form, who would never more know either joy or sorrow, had bowed down and wept over his son. The room was just as we had left it an April evening years ago, and on the dresser lay the great backgammon board, so dusty that one could not read the lettering on it: 'Life is like a game of hazard; the skilful player will make something of the worst of throws'; but what unskilful players we had been, how bad our throws, how little we had made of them!

So after ten years of adventure, escape,  and false imprisonment does the arrow of coincidence bring Moonfleet's sons home from the sea.


Moonfleet village, fallen on hard times as the novel begins, is legend-haunted by the worst scion of its founding family:

Blackbeard was one of the Mohunes who had died a century back, and was buried in the vault under the church, with others of his family, but could not rest there, whether, as some said, because he was always looking for a lost treasure, or as others, because of his exceeding wickedness in life. If this last were the true reason, he must have been bad indeed, for Mohunes have died before and since his day wicked enough to bear anyone company in their vault or elsewhere. Men would have it that on dark winter nights Blackbeard might be seen with an old-fashioned lanthorn digging for treasure in the graveyard; and those who professed to know said he was the tallest of men, with full black beard, coppery face, and such evil eyes, that any who once met their gaze must die within a year.

Following riddling clues hidden among Blackbeard Mohune's remains, Trenchard and Block retrieve a diamond of "matchless size and brilliance" from a well. Their subsequent false imprisonment is at the hands of Aldobrand, a diamond merchant they visit  in The Hague.

In Moonfleet village this fabled diamond was assumed cursed. Blight on its possessors could not be dispersed until its wealth was used to restore the village itself and its people. But the diamond's enthrallment of Trenchard allows Aldobrand to cheat them and frame them for theft.

After conviction and sentencing:

      Then they took and marched us out of court, as well as we could walk for fetters, and Elzevir with a bleeding mouth. But as we passed the place where Aldobrand sat, he bows to me and says in English, 'Your servant, Mr Trenchard. I wish you a good day, Sir John Trenchard of Moonfleet, in Dorset.' The jailer paused a moment, hearing Aldobrand speak to us though not understanding what he said, so I had time to answer him:

     'Good day, Sir Aldobrand, Liar, and Thief; and may the diamond bring you evil in this present life, and damnation in that which is to come.'

     So we parted from him, and at that same time departed from our liberty and from all joys of life.

Ten years later, sitting up at the Why Not? over Elzevier Block's body, John Trenchard learns the result of his courtroom curse on Aldobrand.

....Krispijn Aldobrand, jeweller and dealer in precious stones, at the Hague, had sent for Heer Roosten to draw a will for him. And that the said Krispijn Aldobrand, being near his end, had deposed to the said Heer Roosten, that he, Aldobrand, was desirous to leave all his goods to one John Trenchard, of Moonfleet, Dorset, in the Kingdom of England. And that he was moved to do this, first, by the consideration that he, Aldobrand, had no children to whom to leave aught, and second, because he desired to make full and fitting restitution to John Trenchard, for that he had once obtained from the said John a diamond without paying the proper price for it. Which stone he, Aldobrand, had sold and converted into money, and having so done, found afterwards both his fortune and his health decline; so that, although he had great riches before he became possessed of the diamond, these had forthwith melted through unfortunate ventures and speculations, till he had little remaining to him but the money that this same diamond had brought.

     He therefore left to John Trenchard everything of which he should die possessed, and being near death begged his forgiveness if he had wronged him in aught. These were the instructions which Heer Roosten received from Mr Aldobrand, whose health sensibly declined, until three months later he died. It was well, Heer Roosten added, that the will had been drawn in good time, for as Mr Aldobrand grew weaker, he became a prey to delusions, saying that John Trenchard had laid a curse upon the diamond, and professing even to relate the words of it, namely, that it should 'bring evil in this life, and damnation in that which is to come'. Nor was this all, for he could get no sleep, but woke up with a horrid dream, in which, so he informed Heer Roosten, he saw continually a tall man with a coppery face and black beard draw the bed-curtains and mock him....

John Trenchard, using the cursed wealth of Blackbeard Mohune, restores Moonfleet body and soul. Taking none of the treasure for himself, he finds his own life enriched along the way.


Moonfleet is ripened with other coincidences, moments of prolepsis valorized analeptically. Trenchard acknowledges this in the opening pages:

Reverend Mr Glennie, who taught us village children, had lent me a story-book, full of interest and adventure, called the Arabian Nights Entertainment . At last the light began to fail, and I was nothing loth to leave off reading for several reasons; as, first, the parlour was a chilly room with horse-hair chairs and sofa, and only a coloured-paper screen in the grate, for my aunt did not allow a fire till the first of November; second, there was a rank smell of molten tallow in the house, for my aunt was dipping winter candles on frames in the back kitchen; third, I had reached a part in the Arabian Nights which tightened my breath and made me wish to leave off reading for very anxiousness of expectation. It was that point in the story of the 'Wonderful Lamp', where the false uncle lets fall a stone that seals the mouth of the underground chamber; and immures the boy, Aladdin, in the darkness, because he would not give up the lamp till he stood safe on the surface again. This scene reminded me of one of those dreadful nightmares, where we dream we are shut in a little room, the walls of which are closing in upon us, and so impressed me that the memory of it served as a warning in an adventure that befell me later on. [My emphasis]

Also in the opening chapter, concerning Elzevir's backgammon-board:

It had formed part of the furniture of the Why Not? for generations of landlords, and served perhaps to pass time for cavaliers of the Civil Wars. All was of oak, black and polished, board, dice-boxes, and men, but round the edge ran a Latin inscription inlaid in light wood, which I read on that first evening, but did not understand till Mr Glennie translated it to me. I had cause to remember it afterwards, so I shall set it down here in Latin for those who know that tongue, Ita in vita ut in lusu alae pessima jactura arte corrigenda est , and in English as Mr Glennie translated it, As in life, so in a game of hazard, skill will make something of the worst of throws. [Emphasis in the original.]

There are more examples. They create, by the end of the novel, a vertiginous sense of Fate shaping the fortunes of narrator, friends, village, and world. Falkner does this with care and subtlety: a hidden thread strengthening the emotional pitch of a breathtaking story.


19 December 2021















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