The Folly: fourth arc
The guest is invited by urgent telegram to return to the Folly, as Miss Keltenham, celebrated author, specifically had wanted ghosts for her latest inspiration, and Roscoe refuses to cooperate. Simon seems absent (more to that story); further, having met him in life, Virginia can’t imagine he’s got the stuff, in death. She demands the guest give her the Legend of the Pale Knight, the famous haunting associated with false St. Crispin’s. This is long gone, while the guest’s research indicates there had been another, older chapel, at not quite the same spot.
The Legend of the Pale Knight
‘Those deadly people. They’d like me a bit Elinor Glyn-ish
But then they want sentiment. But then, of course,
they don’t. They want some dismal comeuppance
for bad behaviour, a heroine like one of Lawrence’s
stultifying Magdalene figures. I suppose you can guess what
must lead up to all that.
Trout is with me. I’d ordered him to stay behind.
Sort of help you get these days.’
Pointed, this remark. Aimed at one standing nearby,
Heard to emit a priggish laugh
‘Roscoe…’ the guest clears his throat, and as at once she says,
‘I can’t hear a thing! Speak up!’
answers, ‘Virginia! Are you hearing me now?’
Footballers are chorusing, and the Ram’s Arms’ faulty service
Bloops and stutters
A voice breaks through to them, burbling like a dying man’s
Ask me anything
‘Leave,’ the guest tries.
Call that asking, do you? I may. I might.
‘Does it shock you a little, that I satirize my own
poor œuvre? But I mean to travesty yours—fair warning
That is, I’ve got to have it, your story of the pale knight.
Not to actively poach, my dear…but you’d said to me it is truly frightening.
I suppose,’ Virginia cups the receiver, ‘it’s all right if I insult Roscoe? Because
he’s not been a very public-spirited spectre.
As a matter of fact—dare I say?—silent as the you-know-what.
Trout, who rather inspires mischief, I’m afraid…even my darling Trout
has felt quite at peace, turning one of the cellars into a darkroom.’
‘Have a go,’ the guest shrugs, but feels given a nudge
The words a whisper echoed in his ear
An Ordinary Signal Drop
It impressed me, acquainted me, the unspeakable
more normality than horror at a glance
shivering loose, like flakes of plated gilding
painted over with a garden scene
Shoes, parasol, a hand suspended
holding still its cup of tea
A man, crawling at the last, hurricane winds
Driving him onto knees, and stretching fingertips
at terrifying risk, bowed low and groping to the lopped edge
needing this spray of water in his face
the moon’s emerging, laying of its light
masked by clouds, then startlingly uncurtained
To believe it, that he saw it
Mr. Dunlow, my father’s ancient valet
was servant to a surgeon of Dundee
going out in any case, to lance a boil, or some such
thing, Dunlow not needed, but the gale’d come up strong again
that evening, that was how he told it, he had just
stepped out to see his master off
and eye the weather for himself
It was Mr. Roberts’s story Dunlow told
But had it at secondhand first-hand if you understand me
The feather-tip descends to shelter hope
For a moment the signal lingers in midair
The train has gone at seven-fourteen
‘I don’t like to be a bore…’
That, she says, is the wrong way to begin a tale
You’ll have me fearing the worst
Not either in the proper sense
‘Well…because people have tended, quite literally, to wander off.’
You get invited to dinners, my dear, and you have no dinner conversation.
You plunge in with your Subject.
And, you know, rumour has got out. ‘Never in his presence
breathe the name of bloody St. Crispin’s.’
Have a glance at the sporting news, next time
Memorize one or two results
‘Noticed Madame’s Nightshirt came tenth’
Pigeons or horses, makes no odds
Answer every gambit, ‘Is that right?’
Roscoe, who has climbed down to participate
Is silenced nonetheless
In fact, Virginia says, no one in our circle has heard you tell it.
So what do they know? I shall be the first.
I pledge myself rooted to the spot.
Godfrey the Hermit…though probably he was not a hermit,
that was a bit of mediæval yarn-spinning, of which they did a
great deal, the early missionaries being wily in their way…
understood well that a mystique, a pretence the teachings
were not for everyone, a touch of the nobleman’s high-handedness
to which the peasantry were quite used—
Forgive me. Godfrey, I mean to say,
writing in his poor Latin, that he seemed partly
to have invented ad hoc
I’m not laughing
No…ahem…he had an excellent ear for gossip. His anecdotes,
always to encourage the belief in miracles, are difficult to place
St. Andrew’s Day
She’d been in infirmary with a chest cold by account of the matron
It could be worse
She is very old
These indispositions take the old ones, sudden
But come anyway, Mrs. Devilbiss’ll be that tickled
If she’s feeling up to it
He fears, this is all…ill-advised, his proof, by the porter
Mrs. Winstanley calls greeting from her desk
And adds: ‘I’ll come along. You’ll stay for elevenses? I confess—’
She confesses her eagerness to hear all this.
‘They’ve every one got a story, you know. Just takes teasing out.’
Do you know that I was born in 1847? So, then…I was rising fourteen.
It was November, 1860, I well recall…St. Andrew’s Day, it was.
My old nurse did put store by such
When there’d be a moon, we girls’d go out for a rendezvous.
Long after curfew, we would. I’d been kept abed with a
spotty fever, but I tiptoed down the hall. And so I lagged
behind my sister…and the hoarfrost
made the meadow bright as daylight. It was a farm pond,
Mr. Evans’s, built up, like…you had to climb getting to the shed
He was a queer sight. For that, my heart never skipped a beat
I’d thought at first the boys were larking…he wore a sort of thing
Old Mrs. Devilbiss makes a gesture, her hand bent to a fixed angle
Passes roughly over her own face
A sort of military helmet, the guest says
Ay, I picture it so
And he raised it
… and there inside was only a great mouth
All black and moaning
Like the adit of a mine, you know
The Zone of Prophecy
The sexton of St. Crispin’s, the late Mr. Michelwhyte
I doubt you’d know of him…which is rather the point, the familiar one
being far nearer Bath than Taunton, liked telling
(though half of the time undoubtedly pulling my leg)
of that apparition dubbed the Pale Knight
By legend alleged to warn of doom impending
Now, there are three contrary indications
The guest trails a bit and peers with some anxiety
over his teacup’s rim
My dear, I am a woman of my word, Virginia nudges
Bore ahead, my love (but this is Roscoe, mimicking)
Well, first, these mediæval signs and wonders
Were used politically to cow one’s enemies
You see a deal of the sort of thing in Shakespeare’s histories
Battle’s outcome heralded by the usual cocks and comets
Thus these accounts of Godfrey’s might have been utter fabulation
Set down in writing, by one who could, to please his patron
His name was, the guest adds aside, unlikely to have been Godfrey
That, merely as the local tongue had struck the Norman ear…
Ahem…no doubt, and then to make things muddier
The Knight himself acquired Godfrey’s name—
In the manner of a Frankenstein
Is that right? Now you amaze me
And so we had—the guest ticks off fingers…one, two, one and a half?
…the possibility of romance only
Then there are those matters of investigation…
And I’m sorry to say, we must now sail into the doldrums of specialisation. I shall have to explain a bit about what we seekers call the Zone of Prophecy. Let us say that a thing might happen on any given day within an ordinary year. Its chance of doing so would be one in three hundred sixty-five. But if I should like to seem clever, I might say a Monday in autumn…that I feel it shall be thus, sheltering under the umbrella of otherworldly fogginess (the guest here does a creditable pantomime of squinting into a crystal ball). With fair confidence, taking only the smallest of risks, I can predict disaster…disasters always are occurring, after all…
And being that the detail—specificity…you see how it gives the illusion of authenticity—of either Monday or autumn doubles my odds of falling near the mark, while yet the two coming together remains quite possible… But, suppose I say the catastrophe will take place on December the nineteenth, and be centred upon the Isle of Man. Then, of course, it either does or, far more probably, does not. Should I suggest a robbery of the Irish Mail, now, and this come true, you reasonably would presume my knowledge more that of confederate than clairvoyant. Because one may cause a crime, but one may not cause an earthquake…
The Spectre Knows
‘Then further,’ says the guest, ‘we are not talking about intuition. If a railwayman observe that passengers are in the habit of jumping from the cars before the train comes to a halt, he may say, “There you have the makings of an accident”, and may well be proved right. We do not call that prophecy.’
Michelwhyte, of ninety-nine years
Seventy and more visiting old stores
of books, his favourite enviable pastime
Dust, and tiny beads of sweat…of fingertips, of saints
Of leaves’ tender gilding none else had managed to unstick
Michelwhyte, a patient wight, a slowly mummifying servant
of Christ, a man who keeps his watches, a pale knight
gliding edges of evening-hours smiles and animated eyes
Kind-hearted, pontificating Michelwhyte
The very man—astonishing!
Old Michelwhyte, living, truly? You don’t say…
‘Ay, ’tis he.’
A near century of mounting cataclysm, and the spectre knows
It Is All One
the doom of man, propagating like a cloud
The ancient sexton unearthed again by a junior reporter
sent in search of local colour
‘Ere the plague arrived in England, Godfrey had been seen
Ten villages along the coast been left without a living soul
And gales blowing down their walls
And bones of dead men lying on their beds
Full-clothed and lying on their beds.’
It is unfortunately true, that one of the easiest mistakes of memory is in the ordering of events. Let me digress.
Oh, I hope you’ll take it in stages, Roscoe says. Don’t want to tax yourself, learning a new skill.
Mm-yes. So…it was in 1912 that we lost the Titanic. I’d mentioned Michelwhyte’s spellbinding reminiscences, printed in the Advertiser three years earlier. The ‘echo period’, as we call it, generally will proceed from the source for three to five years.
The old sexton’s manifestations were fairly regular. Michelwhyte did plenty of unintended mischief…every decade or so, rediscovered. Curious old duffer tells a curious tale. He had, by attrition, got possession of it…all rival sources dying away, whilst Michelwhyte lived on.
You see, I’d been confident the Pale Knight was fabrication, and bearing all the signs of it. My aim was disproof, rather than proof. And so I’d set about reviewing articles, letters…interviewing those mentioned by name; or, in the case of the letters, locating them by a sort of deductive process—
One might sign himself: ‘A Hobbyist’, for example, or ‘Old Fusilier’… Most times an appeal to the landlord—of any public house near the given address—would readily identify the writer.
Now, invariably (and many of the stories, due to the passage of time, must come at second-hand), the claim was that someone else had seen the apparition. This sort of lead, you won’t be surprised to learn, would go cold at once. However, I had talked—it was five years ago—to a David Butcherson, aged forty-five then, twenty-eight at the time of his claim…
And did it speak?
Head scratch. Wary smile. I can’t remember that.
And how do you picture yourself…? How many feet distant, between yourself and Godfrey… Where would you place the creature on the compass, facing north, facing south…?
Well, I felt right off he hadn’t got a picture. He had imagined the needed bits, of the knight’s demeanour and accoutrement, to facilitate the telling of his yarn…and the reporter hadn’t cared enough to mind. Only a bit of column-filler, item of local interest.
But, I am an investigator. The gear Butcherson described was such as you might see in a pageant or a play; and if the Pale Knight were a true phenomenon, he would not have appeared as anything like a knight…not, that is, habilimented in the Arthurian manner. By rights, the helmet either would resemble a museum piece from the late Roman period, or be a thing never seen—yet consistent, nevertheless, in detail from account to account.
Then again, it is not really a social faux pas to have seen a ghost…more a feather in the cap, to a number of circles.
You mean to say, by rights he’d have gone at once, told a friend.
Or accused a friend…
Of taking the piss.
The guest blushes before Virginia.
Phrase you were looking for. No need to thank me, Roscoe says.
Reputation, for those into whose veins,
Embarrassment taps easily and oft,
Becrimsoning the cheek, that turns aside in haste;
And cutting cruelly like a two-edged sword—
Though by a most humble squire raised
What’s all this? Roscoe demands, and mutters aside: Have to say orft, then, if you’re rhyming it with sword.
Oh, I don’t know, says the guest, puzzled…vaguely what I had in mind to say, rather surprising it should come out that way…
The Reverend Sir Mortimer Finchley-Stroethers, vicar and ‘amateur scribbler’, once strongly pitched (‘to Salisbury: no ear whatever’), by his dear Lady Marchpane, of the Shropshire Marchpanes (‘so kind as to have postscripted a line from “Icarus”, in sending to the Queen her birthday wishes’), for appointment to the post of poet laureate (‘this was just at the time of the Boer War…other chap snaffled it’), speaks further:
You’d all gone quiet. It is my nature to lend a hand. To all and any of county historians, such as have dedicated their scholarship to the pursuit of hidden Truths, the tale I have to tell—one in which both professional jealousy and dastardly vengeance figure in the liveliest respects—will be of great interest…
After I’d been at it—the discreet advertisements and the personal interviews—for a number of years, it became fairly well known I was searching for legends of the Pale Knight. I’d been leery of being sought out…he that pays the piper calls the tune, as they say. Yet in a handful of instances, the sketch by Nigel Devilbiss of his aunt’s encounter being one, a…
He tilts a hand to the left, to the right, and says, hesitant about it: ‘Sinister, I think, is the word I may fairly use. A sinister consistency asserted itself. The “sort of thing”, you’ll recall, she’d described him wearing. Of course, it was beyond her to name it. A battle-helmet, of very ancient design. Why, I wondered, should the true sightings feel so fictitious, and the false sightings so true?’
Song of Trout
There is no harm in others underestimating one’s fortitude
Matthew Piers Trout has reason to be sure of it
Sure as he’d known, from school days, loneliness
mutate into priestly hauteur
Mysteries performed behind the darkroom door
Life given purpose, on discovery of the art
He’d known as well, at the first pass—thirteen when
the war ended—he would not be called
But yet the day would come
The authoress had wanted a shorthand-typist.
‘You haven’t the face of a man with a hobby. I ought to hire Lady Newtonmore’s niece. Do you know how many years I scrounged for a publisher? The little upstart tells me she’ll look on it as an apprenticeship. Well, with the aristocracy, it is never a wise thing to burn one’s bridges. But, young Trout, I believe I’ll take you. And then,’ she’d said, Miss Keltenham…after he’d barely got used to her trend of thought, ‘you’ll take me!’
He had. She had come from the hairdresser without her specs, another woman altogether. After that, got testy, when he’d suggested, ‘Here you are putting an adverb between had and been. You do that rather often. Shall I correct them all?’
‘I’ll tell you what. Go down and speak to MacCreasey. He’s brought dull papers to read. A treat for you, lad.’
Months afterwards, going to Colonel Llewellyn’s safety talk, Trout, of all members of his camera club, bore about with him among ordinary shutterbugs, a certain celebrity, for having been hauled up by the collar into possession of this glamourous title…publicity agent.
‘Keltenham. Wife reads her. Bit of a humourist. Now there’s a danger worth putting a stop to, this joking habit. Gives comfort to the enemy.’
He hadn’t explained.
But, of course, the enemy.
This brief talk with the military man had chuffed Trout to pieces. And on that note of pride, he’d felt braced to a British sense of duty, stopping just shy of rejoicing…that the Germans seemed bent on re-arming.
They had all been asked to give their names.
He’d quivered in terror for a week…he’d gone wrong, somehow, and would not be summoned. The others would shift eyes at one another, suck in laughter.
‘No, you’ll not speak to Llewellyn again. He’s not in it,’ Trout had been informed. The major had given him a canister of film.
These who gather at the Folly
The urbane host, the Oxonian guest—
That neighbour, Inskip…certainly a Scot
Farming in Somerset
Or like Virginia, those to whom they let the place
All incomers. Such are the bustling ways
Of the present century
And Trout supposes whether or no
This may mean much
It means something
It is the dire burden of the charge
His shoulders now must manage bearing
‘When we are infiltrated, the tunnel will be made
By a nosing in, a gradual wearing
It won’t seem odd to you when you’ve got used
To the agitation, the comings and goings
You imagine it’s only in the Big Smoke
That people pass by foreigners on the street
Preoccupied, indifferent, out-of-mind
In contrast to the countryside, the little towns
Where famously nothing escapes the public eye…
But you forget what the classes are
How easily one nods at eccentricities
Among the gentry.’
The major thinks it’s not the rank and file
‘Your touring countess is the greater menace.’
Where End Meets Beginning
Now, he allows for those romantic fancies
That titillate the female set
Virginia, Trout views with an oblige suited
To a scientific man’s noblesse
Trout, who knows his shutter speeds
And chemical baths—and grades of films
Appropriate for this and that
Disbelieves strongly in this poltergeist
This Roscoe, meant to be the late Bevington
Although…sieving minutiae through his grey cells
He treads a path shrouded by earthly cloud
And asks himself
Would a voice recorded on magnetic tape
Limit one, or rather enhance the effect…?
Yes, muck about with ordinary expectations
As the major has it, and as Trout, so bolstered being thus
Gulps down like a khaki pabulum
The enemy has got you, then
They’ll have you doubting what you know is true
Someone has popped a flash bulb
He thinks the familiar thing
Only that searing radiance
By rights, by now would end
A metal chill drives through him like a sword
Trout, on his knees, grapples for the weight
Hung round his neck
This, this, Britannia whispers…
Fail not! Tis your moment of glory, lad
Poison in the Marrow
Now Trout had had an aunt
A woman inculcated with a fair education
Of course, one mustn’t laugh
No. There, but for the grace of…
She’d spoken of burning one’s Rubicons behind one
He feels, coming to himself, the point is apt
A cruel temptation seems fingering his nape
He means to shrug it off
This mongrel thought
Jettisoning all of fealty that an oath
Should bind one
The night is somewhat balmy
Soft Spring explodes in loamy odours
Advance notice of relentless greening
Of which the season, innocent
As a kitten with a mouse
Insists upon, insists upon
Chill and heat mix on the skin of a bead
Dew plays alike on Trout’s fevered brow
The vision sprouts anew
The creature had no words to tell
Spoke, the Pale Knight, in conjured sights
An atom draws unto itself an ocean
Plummets to the sky in pillar of volcanic flame
Rains over earth an unseeable rain
That lodges a slow poison in the marrow
The seed has taken root
But still…and surely…by some means
The enemy has wrought these things
He ought to take the spool of film
And seal it tight
Not look to learn what workings of
what infernal device
He has captured there
That, by rights, is the major’s affair
And yet Trout knows he’ll not sit idle
Shirking mission in the belly of the whale
Through the night
He trials martyrdom…hangs himself and scans the mob
for sympathetic eyes
He can’t find hers
Oh mother mother make my bed
Oh make it soft and narrow