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

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

Friday, September 1, 2017

Omens of mischance: A review of ’Twixt Dog and Wolf By C. F. Keary




“that dim and deceitful hour “‘twixt dog and wolf”, as the French have it, when shadows and objects are intermingled and outlines lost. (Egerton Castle, Incomparable Bellairs, 1922). (Cited)


’Twixt Dog and Wolf by C.F. Keary is a 1901 collection of three strange and folk-dense twilight tales. They are written in a rich prose that is to be savored for its clarity and freshness.

***

‘Before men worshipped Zeus or Apollo they worshipped him, mighty Pan.’

“The Message from the God” takes as its theme the thinning out of pre-Olympian gods. The story takes place on the shores of the Aegean, where Greeks Lysias and Glaucon observe the sunset near their temple.

[The temple] rose above its platform, the steps of which bathed their feet in the blue sea. Behind nodded the dark pine-trees in the temenos [sacred grove] of the god, and on the other hand Titanus flowed hardly among its reeds and lost itself in the salt water.

As dusk gathers, they discuss the merits of various gods.

‘Zeus!’ said Lysias. ‘I have served in too many lands and under too many gods.’

‘There are no gods but ours,’ reiterated Glaucon.

And at that moment a whisper came from the reeds beside them, and a certain fear fell upon the speaker.

‘There have been other gods,’ his companion replied. ‘Here I have heard that, many ages before your Apollo had his temple, Titanus was a god, whom Pan begot by the nymph Æglê. Now some only of the shepherds pay their vows to him; yet whether men bring him sacrifices or no, he cares not at all, neither he nor his nymphs. But they play still among the reeds here, where the fresh water runs into the sea. Only our sight is dimmed, so that we can no longer see them. And if your temple should crumble into dust, as, indeed, it is no longer fresh and new as it was at the prime—for I doubt there be not such large offerings to Gryneian Apollo as once there were—yet will the river-god continue there to disport him in the soft water. Unto thee, then, old Titanus,’ he cried, turning his back upon the temple and his face to the rushes, ‘I vow a spotless kid three days hence at the new moon’; and as he said this Lysias laughed.

But Glaucon shuddered, for he knew, by the prophecy of the Thracian, that Lysias had spoken an ill-omened word. But the other, still laughing, took his way up the river-bank, and was soon lost to sight behind the headland and the grove. Then Glaucon turned about and ascended to the temple to perform the rites.

After Lycias departs,

Glaucon stood there, a solitary figure facing the sunset. For generations his family had furnished the priesthood of Apollo’s shrine. He now was the last of his race. Yet this was scarce a thing to grieve over, for only on such a condition could the prophecy of the Thracian be fulfilled, the message from the god delivered.

It was true what Lysias had hinted. Not such crowds as of old came there to worship or brought gifts. Fewer still ever stayed near the temple after sunset, or entered the pine-tree enclosure at nightfall; for there the shepherds on the high downs declared they had beheld white presences like unto wreaths of mist float among the upper branches of the trees. These were, they said, the spirits of human victims—of those who, through the ages, had been sacrificed to the god at his yearly feast of atonement, or in some great purification when sickness devastated the country.

Helios touched upon the Western Sea. What had been like a bank of cloud grew suddenly solid. It was the Island of Lesbos. A great streak as of blood marked the Hydra promontory. The cliff put on that crimson stain each evening because at that hour had leapt up the flames of the hero’s funeral pyre on Mount Œta—the flames, as Glaucon had said just now, that bore him to heaven.

The young priest was but newly returned from service in the Macedonian legion and in the army of Domitius Ahenobarbus. Under that General the Romans had penetrated further than their arms had ever before reached into the territory of the Germans. He had lately lost a brother quartered at Aliso, fallen among the Cherusci, fierce and cunning.

In all these lands he had found his gods reverenced even by men who did not respect the might of Cæsar. Yea, far as the world extended on every side—Tyrians and Turones, Scythians and Sigambri, Gauls and Goths—men worshipped the gods of Greece.

‘At this moment,’ the young legionary said to himself, ‘the camp-fires are being lighted along the Roman lines. The Germans are driving their cattle home by the swampy woodland paths. Their small houses shine white through the dusk, and unnumbered cranes rise from the dim marshes and wheel on high uttering their doleful chorus.’

An awe fell upon his soul, for, as if in answer to his thought, behold there came out of the sunset, black against its crimson, a marshalled flight of swans winging straight towards him in a long line. The clang of their wings was like the clash of arms in the distance. This must indeed be the first token from the god. Now of a sudden they changed front, the whole line shook, then it reformed. Alas! it turned further to the south, and passed him on the left hand. And trouble smote the heart of the watcher.

“The Message from the God” is a powerful story about historical contradictions between older folk religions and the urban, conquering faiths installed at Rome's sword-point. There is a dynamic mood of belatedness
to it, as well as horror, when Glaucon has his final look at a procession of nymphs and satyrs.

***

“Elizabeth” also employs European folk story traditions in its plot; indeed, it is a kind of summa of folk stories.

Elizabeth, a peasant’s wife, lives in one of the German principalities at the time of the Crusades.

There were some indeed who said that Carl’s cottage, Elizabeth’s husband’s, lay not truly within the village boundary, or had not always been within it—inside, that is, the circle traced by the priest when thrice a year he went round the parish, and read a passage of Scripture at each of the gospel oaks, and the prayers against evil spirits which keep in air, whence are all kinds of pestilence, and diseases, and sickness, that they may be driven out and the air made pure and clean. It was a mere tale this concerning their house, ‘The Corner,’ a story of old days not worth thinking on. Priest Gebhard must have blessed their land a score of times by now. Yet this night Elizabeth shuddered for the first time at Jutta’s words.

….Did Elizabeth ever listen with a sort of hope mingled with her dread for the sound of the Strange Hunt coming from the wood, with a shadow of disappointment that it never came?

Elizabeth loses her husband, who vanishes after being tempted into poaching by two strangely attired foresters. She sets off to the castle.

….Elizabeth took the path that, almost from the cottage, began to clamber up alongside the wood; then left it again; and, descending a little, crossed a piece of common land. There at the moment Hansel and Bertha, the goose-boy and goose-girl, were tending their flocks hard by the edge of the forest. These were the last familiar faces that she saw. Even at the moment of her passing them, there came the first of three signs of ill-luck. A hare sprang almost from beneath her feet, and hopped away, as if it went on three legs only. She followed it, and plunged into the forest, which began with young trees of hazel and oak. And, ah! as she entered the shade, an owl flapped forth in broad daylight. This was the second sign; and anon, as she wandered farther, she found that the leaf trees were exchanged for a forest entirely of pines. And here all token of life seemed to have departed, until a raven, the bird of fearful knowledge, rose and circled thrice about her head, then, with a harsh cry, winged away. The three omens of mischance, the hare, the owl, and the raven! Her heart died within her.

Elizabeth's discoveries, not least of all about herself, explain the seemingly arbitrary supernatural events she witnesses, and that eventually transform her.

***

“The Message From the God” takes place during the Roman Empire. “Elizabeth,” during the Middle Ages. The last story, “The Four Students,” begins in the years just preceding the French Revolution, and ends as the guillotine continues its work.

Raynaud, Gavaudun, Sommarel, and Tourret are four poor students sharing one room in the Rue Pot-de-Fer, Paris during the deep winter of 1787.

Just before midnight on Christmas Eve, they perform an occult ritual from an old book, De Invocatione Spirituum.

The story jumps ahead six years:

Gavaudun had left Paris to become a professor at Lille, and, young as he still was, was a man already distinguished. On the capture of Lille he had become an Austrian subject, and had left Revolutionary France forever. Sommarel was practising the law in his native town. Tourret had married a rich wife and had disappeared from ken. Only Raynaud remained behind in the old room.

Raynaud’s plans have come to nothing since the ritual.

He had in those ambitious student days (he had always passed then for the cleverest of the four) planned that great work on the Comité des Nations, an extension of the doctrine of the social contract into the domain of national law. It was to inaugurate a new era. The plan of the book and its very name were identical with those of the work which Gavaudun had actually published in these years; and which even in the times in which they lived had made him famous. Had Gavaudun taken his idea? Had he, Raynaud, left much on record? Had he expounded it fully in those days? He could not remember now; but he thought he had drawn it all out later. Yet it could not be so; Gavaudun must have stolen the thought from him. But his spirits felt too dulled to allow of his feeling active resentment even for such a piece of plagiarism as that.

Then Tourret; that was stranger still. Tourret had acted out in real life what had been Raynaud’s dream. He had almost from boyhood had that romance in his mind. How he was to be riding along the dangerous way where the main road to Tours branches off from the Orleans road, there where the disused water-mill peeps out from among the trees,—that mill was always thought to be a rendezvous for footpads; how he was to overhear the two men planning the seizure of an approaching vehicle, was to ride past them receiving a shot through his hat (he remembered all the details), was to meet the coach in which sat an old father and a beautiful young daughter, to ride up (in imminent danger again of being shot) and give them warning. Alas, too late, for here are the two upon us! But the old father fires, he, Raynaud, fires, and the two rogues fall. But what if more are coming? So he offers his own horse to the father, and the daughter rides on pillion behind, Raynaud and the coachman driving after at the best rate they can make. The result, the eternal gratitude of the father and his, Raynaud’s ultimate marriage to the beautiful heiress. Such had been Raynaud’s romance, elaborated in every detail. And three years ago it had fallen to Tourret actually to do this thing! The robbers from whom Tourret saved his future father-in law were not common highwaymen, but two from the terrible band of the chauffeurs, wherefore his heroism had been the greater. Tourret had married the heiress, and had, it was thought, at the beginning of the troubles found his way out of France to Switzerland.

At night Raynaud walks aimlessly in his neighborhood, and enters a church closed by the Revolution:

….the little church of St. Étienne des Grès. The day had been long gone, and it was colder than ever. But the night was clear, and the starlight stole in, muffled and shadowy, through the east window of the church.

Through the east window,—but why did the groining of the window seem to shake and sway from side to side? Why did the air blow so cold through the church? There was an answer to this, Raynaud knew, but could not lay hold of it. From the organ-loft (if it was an organ-loft) came a sad sound like that which the wind makes through pine trees. Raynaud looked and looked into the recesses—of what?—the church? Nay; but they stretched far beyond the limits of the church. It was as if he were in the midst of a vast forest. Dim star-lit stems seemed to catch his eye from far distances girt round by shadow; and now over his head boughs were certainly waving to and fro.

Then a wild sort of half-chant filled his ears, wild but very faint. He could dimly fancy he caught the voices of his old comrades, Gavaudun, Sommarel, Tourret, in it; at any rate the chant brought them in some way into his mind. And the sound grew nearer and nearer, wilder and harsher. Figures came in sight, fierce in gesture, with unkempt locks streaming down their faces, clad in skins, brandishing spears on high, marching or dancing forward in a strange dance. Then there was a crashing among the branches and heavy-wheeled carts rumbled into sight, each drawn by two bullocks. Beside them walked men in white apparel, with fillets26 round their hair. The carts were full of men and women, who all had their hands bound behind them, in some cases bound so tightly that the withes had cut through the flesh and a streak of blood trickled downward over their hands. Some opened their mouths from time to time, but whether to sigh or cry out Raynaud could not tell, for the shouting and screaming of the crowd would have drowned their voices. And now, as each cart came to the stopping place, the bound men were one by one brought down, a white-robed priest plunged a knife into each one’s cart, and the blood flowed out upon the ground. The cries and chanting grew louder and louder; people danced in ecstasy round the pool of blood, which was swelling almost into a rivulet, and flowed away among the trees. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, it all ceased; and Raynaud saw the dark church round him with a faint light struggling in through the window. And within him the silent Voice spoke,—‘I am the spirit of the place. I did it. Two thousand years ago, and yesterday and—’ Thereupon the whole air seemed to be filled with pale faces of slaughtered victims, who moved round as in a procession. Raynaud saw at last the faces of his three old comrades of the Rue Pot-de-Fer following one after the other, and at the end of all a fourth face,—his own!

From that moment of supernatural vision, Raynaud’s life is utterly transformed, and the effect on his fellow students is terrible to behold.

***

’Twixt Dog and Wolf, in its three stories, evokes three historical periods: classical, medieval, and modern. In each, Keary dramatizes a contradiction between past and present: the Greek gods supplant Pan; a secret queen (Wicked Hilda) visits revenge on a kingdom; the Terror of the French Revolution echos but supersedes the frenzies of religious violence and persecution seen in earlier centuries.

Each story is richly worked, filled with uncanny moments and a headlong style free of anachronistic pseudo-rhetoric.

“Elizabeth” is certainly a deep engagement with European folk traditions and imagery, and can be seen as a precursor of magic realism.

“The Message from the God” recalls the poignancy of Arnold's “Dover Beach” and Lovecraft's “The Very Old Folk.”

“The Four Students” is a brilliantly imagined tale of occult violation rippling through four lives, and the life of a city.


(Ten negligible prose poems are also included in the book; like most prose poems, they are too arbitrary and abstract to be read with pleasure.)

Jay
1 September 2017

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