The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
16.1 (Winter 2016)
David Z. Crookes
Another day—or night—on Mr. Crookes’ island of faith and beauty in the heart of British academe proves anything but tiresome and stodgy.
Episode 3: From the past
Let me throw nine facts at you. Greta Hegans is a very tall PhD student from the art college. She speaks in grammatical English. (All the Clean Muses do.) Last year Greta joined the Biblical study group which meets in my home. A month ago she bought an old mandoline, and began to restore it. Once a fortnight I create some pictorial record of Greta’s athletic salubrity. Once a month Miss Hegans contrives to fire some Brutalist Ceramical Creation of mine in the college kiln. On Christmas Day I gave Greta a copy of Feuillade’s film Les Vampires. Today, at three o’clock on the morning of New Year’s Day, she has come into my painting shed – not to collect a portrait of herself, but to tell me a story.
‘Behind our college,’ Greta begins, ‘and in the middle of what used to be a herb-garden, there is a large wildlife pond. The garden is overgrown with thistles and briars. A stream flows into the pond on one side, and flows out again on the other.’ My guest pauses to glance at experimental sketches of the twins which I have hung on the wall behind me. ‘Before the Christmas break, Herdie Thistle asked me if I would stand in the wildlife pond, wearing a swimsuit, and pose for a photograph. I was astounded. Most people are aware that the Thought Police of the art college abominate any depiction of womanhood. I mean, the reckless male student who paints a female form…..’ Greta holds out two hands, by way of inviting me to finish her sentence.
‘….. will be accused of “scopophilia”.’
‘That’s right! Unless he declares himself to be “interrogating the gynocolonial clan kerygmas of the phallocentric hierarchy”. And if he dares to take photographs of a lady swimmer, he will be denounced as “creepy”.’ Miss Hegans suppresses a yawn. ‘Anyhow, welcoming what I took to be a sign of rebellion, I agreed to be photographed. Now as you may recall, dear, Herdie used to have a weird numerological thing about me, so I drew up a rigorous contract for the shoot. At no point would either of us address the other. There would be no greetings, and no shouted commands. I undertook to stand for five minutes in the middle of the pond, starting at precisely two o’clock on the afternoon of 30 December. My photographer had to make three promises. First, he would not arrive before me. Secondly, he would take only one picture. Thirdly, he would leave at four minutes past two. Well! Herdie duly consented. Then he said nervously that he was hoping to develop his photograph in a rather primitive manner. I asked him what he meant. He replied that Cicely Grove had got him interested in “undigital rusticity”.’
I’m lost. (By the way, Cicely Grove – art student, church organist, and gymnast — is a virtuosic player of the conch. More than once I have painted the spectacular Miss Grove as a Tritoness.)
‘I wasn’t bemused, dear, although you seem to be.’ Greta smiles. ‘Cicely likes to employ old-fashioned cameras and kitchen-sink chemistry. Whenever she develops her own photographs, she uses undecaffeinated instant coffee, powdered vitamin C, washing soda, and household ammonia. On rare occasions she uses ordinary salt as a fixer, instead of ammonia.’
‘What kind of results does she get?’
‘Oh, her results vary. On a bad day, Cicely will create an enchanting blend of blotchy cappuccino. On a good day, she will create a ravishing impressionist sepia from the late nineteenth century. Look at what Miss Grove has done with one of your own photographs.’ My beautiful visitor takes a picture from her valise, and sets it on the table. ‘Here are the Flying Dutchwomen, standing between two flagpoles on their plywood Kon-Tiki raft.’ Greta pauses. ‘They look a bit more substantial in your varnished sketches, dear.’
Miss Hegans regards me soberly. ‘Let me introduce you to another character. Herdie and I arranged our Lady-of-the-Lake shoot in the kiln-room. We were overheard by a jewellery student called Tony Fisher, who last year kept asking me to go out with him. I always refused, because Tony is a modern Jean des Esseintes. He wears a blue velvet jacket, drinks civet coffee, carries a Swan Lake crossbow, takes no exercise, and lives in an overheated indoor world.’
‘Is my shed too warm for you?’
‘No!’ Greta laughs. ‘Writing under the name of Thaddeus Ratting, Mr Fisher has published a rhythmical prose-poem entitled “Caravaggio’s Vestment”. It begins, “What am I? A brilliant glowing ruby bee! Academe? Grovellers! Slugs!” Tony has also composed ten workmanlike sonnets about my body parts. Two of these glories have graced the college magazine. One was called “Greta’s brow”, and the other was called “Greta’s cheekbones”. Both of them were quite decorous, unlike the imitation of Robert Louis Stevenson which Mr Fisher sent me at Hallowe’en.’ My guest produces a strange narrow postcard, and sets it on the table. ‘Read that quatraine.’
I obey. Not far away, some vagrant cat gives a loveless gurgled scream.
After twelve seconds, Greta speaks. ‘What do you think of it?’
‘It sounds dangerous,’ I reply. ‘Did you complain to anyone about the poem?’
‘No, because I felt sorry for its author.’ (Blue light — from an ambulance? — flashes in the street.) ‘You see, during the summer holiday Tony lost a good deal of weight, and much of his mental stability as well. According to Herdie, Mr Fisher has become a serious drug addict.’ Greta shivers. ‘When I was leaving the kiln-room on Christmas Eve, Tony brushed past me, muttering something about “one black arrow”. Here ends the first section of my saga.’
Miss Hegans rises to her feet. ‘A two-piece braided swimsuit will soon become pertinent, dear,’ she says, ‘and I’m wearing that swimsuit now. Please permit me to remove sundry garments in privacy.’
I leave my seat, pull up the blackout shutter, and go out. A sharp feeling of unease, which I learned to respect long ago in foreign lands, moves me to look across the road. The Lone Telescopist is still at his post! Does the man ever sleep? Or is Mr Byatt asking the same question about me?
When my guest calls me back into the shed, I ask her two questions. ‘Why is that swimsuit important, and why are you modelling it now?’
‘Because you are the only person who has ever seen me wearing it.’ Modest as Nausicaa, Greta places two hands on her stomach.
‘Let me think.’ I push down the blackout shutter, and return to a warm chair. ‘My last five paintings of you were all based on a single photograph.’
‘You wore that braided swimsuit in the photograph.’
‘So I did.’ Greta picks up her valise. ‘You said that you needed my concise garments to be defined.’ She takes out first a large album, and then a wrapped solid object. ‘Attend, dear!’ Nausicaa lays the album on her chair. ‘You are about to meet Lady Beryl Petalston.’
‘Who was she?’
‘My great-great-grandmother.’ Greta begins to unwrap the object. ‘Her grandson, who was my great-uncle, often used to allege that I was the exact image of Lady Beryl. I ignored his allegation until last March, when I inherited a miniature portrait of my ancestress, painted by Maria Eliza Simpson. I have here a blown-up photograph of the miniature.’ My virtuous model, who is still standing, reaches me a small framed picture. ‘What do you think of it?’
I study the likeness for seven seconds. ‘Lady Beryl must have been a woman of rare pulchritude. I can see what your great-uncle meant.’
‘Thanks, dear.’ Greta relieves me of the picture, and puts it on the table. ‘In her first season she was regarded as a formidable beauty, although the slenderness of her arms was unfashionable.’
‘Late Victorians liked the kind of arms that Delaroche gave to Lady Jane Grey.’
‘So they did! And it’s odd that you should mention our Nine-Day-Queen, because my great-great-grandmother was supposed to have modelled her own intellectual and spiritual life on that of Lady Jane.’ Greta pauses. ‘Before she was twenty she could read and write fluently in six different languages, including Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. She studied the Bible assiduously. She played the organ in her family chapel for an hour every day. She painted flowers, and birds, and animals. It’s a shame that no photograph of Lady Beryl has survived. She married at the age of twenty-two, and died in childbirth one year later. After her death, the family fortunes went steadily downhill for three generations. Today my great-great-grandmother’s only memorials are a tomb in Ashburton, a miniature portrait, and an illustrated album or commonplace book which I inherited along with the portrait. This album, unremarkable for its period, as at first I thought, contains a multitude of handwritten poems, cryptograms, short pieces of music notation, and watercolour sketches. Every item is dated. I leafed through it in March, and set it aside.
‘On Boxing Day I decided to examine the album properly. It turned out to be a record of things which Lady Beryl had seen or heard, between the ages of nineteen and twenty-one, in her dreams.’ My guest lifts the album, and passes it to me. ‘Look at the first three pages, dear.’
I obey. On page one, the text of Luke 13. 4 (Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem?) is followed by a square arrangement of four consecutive words (THE TOWER IN SILOAM). I try to discern what is going on. The sixteen-letter square must be read from top to bottom, and from left to right. Letters nine, thirteen, and fourteen are written in hard-to-read yellow ink. Letters five and ten are written in jade-green ink. Letters six, eleven, and fifteen are written in bright blue ink. Letters one, two, three, four, seven, eight, twelve, and sixteen are written in glowing red ink.
Idle people will exclaim, ‘What tomfooleries!’ But the cryptogram will disturb any American reader who takes the trouble to probe it.
On page two of Lady Beryl’s book, the forty-nine letters of a hideously obscure message are set out both in a square table and in a quatraine.
British readers who recognize that Lady Beryl is using the verb DEPONE here in its old sense of DEPOSE will perceive that her cryptogram relates partly to the Abdication Crisis of 1936. King EDWARD resolved to marry WALLIS Simpson (AWARDED WILLS = EDWARD + WALLIS). Stanley BALDWIN ( = BID LAWN) was Prime Minister in 1936. The word HEIL is spelled by red letters seven, fourteen, twenty-one, and twenty-eight. HEIL combines with green letters six and thirteen to spell HITLER, whom Edward admired, and whom on one occasion he met. Green letters two, six, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, and thirteen may be arranged so as to spell the name of a crime which Edward committed during the WAR (blue letters thirty-nine, forty, and forty-one).
What next? Something less colourful. Staid liturgic unity marks page three of the book, on which two poems are set out side by side – first in square tables, and then in sets of quatraines.
‘Page three worries me,’ says Greta. ‘The long poem contains my Christian name. It also contains a STREAM which is SEVERED by the wildlife pond.’ She pauses. ‘It even contains a THISTLE that may be a proper noun.’
‘HERDIE is there as well. Look at the end of the second stanza.’
‘Golly.’ Nausicaa trembles. ‘How did I miss that?’ She rubs her eyes unhappily. ‘Never mind. I can handle myself and Herdie Thistle, dear, but I can’t handle Tony Fisher.’
‘Is he in the poem?’
‘He is! And I found him only because you gave me an old French film for Christmas.’ Greta takes the print-out of a screen-shot from her valise, and hands it to me. ‘In the third episode of Les Vampires, Guérande decodes a cryptographic table. First he writes down the four corner-letters – top left, top right, bottom left, and bottom right.
‘Then he writes down the immediate horizontal neighbours of the four corner-letters. After that he writes down the immediate horizontal neighbours of those neighbours, and so on. Remember?’
‘Well, on 27 December I treated THRIVING BRAMBLES in the manner of Guérande. Once I had written down the ten letters T F I Y H S N O R E, I stopped. The ten letters didn’t spell anything plausible. Suddenly, as in Feuillade’s film IRMA VEP turns into VAMPIRE, T F I Y H S N O R E turned into TONY FISHER. I thought that I was having a nightmare, generated by the film.’ Greta pauses. ‘I’ve gone as far as I can go. If you’re not too weary, dear, you should look at Lady Beryl’s two poems for thirty minutes. You’re bound to see things that I haven’t noticed. Will you oblige me?’
‘Gladly. What are you going to do?’
‘Sleep.’ Nausicaa sits down, folds her long arms, and closes her eyes.
I pray for help.
Cryptanalysis is like riding a horse. You never forget how to do it. After studying the pair of poems, I make a number of observations.
BRAMBLES and THISTLES, mentioned in the long poem, grow around the wildlife pond. For its part THYME, mentioned in the short poem, may well survive in the former herb-garden.
The word DUTY comes twice in the long poem, and once in the short poem.
Tony Fisher wears a blue velvet jacket. He may be the short poem’s TROLL DRESSED IN BLUE.
In the course of performing her duty, Lady Beryl will put on CLOTHING that excites her LOATHING.
Miss Hegans has begun to repair a mandoline. She may be the short poem’s LITHE LUTE-building GIRL.
After a minute, three questions occur to me. Is the drivelling short poem organically related to the half-sensible long poem? Is the short poem in some way born of the long poem? Do all the letters which compose the short poem come from the long poem?
I write out the larger cryptogram-square on a piece of white card.
Now comes the slow meticulous bit, which a real cryptanalyst always enjoys. In a whisper I spell out, one letter at a time, Lady Beryl’s short poem. As I pronounce each letter I look for its twin on the white card, and cross it out. Experience warns me to expect that at some point I shall meet a letter in the short poem which has no counterpart in the long poem.
My expectation is not fulfilled. At length I realize that all one hundred and sixty-nine letters of the short poem have rôles in the long poem.
How many letters of the long poem have I not crossed out? One hundred and twenty? Better check the arithmetic. Yes! There are two hundred and eighty-nine letters in the long poem, and I have crossed out one hundred and sixty-nine of those letters.
Something moves me to write down, on a piece of yellow paper, the one hundred and twenty letters of the long poem that I have not crossed out.
Hooohhh! Before my mental eyes, a thrilling notion is beginning to crystallize. I reach across the table, and pick up Tony’s postcard. Lady Beryl’s short poem contains the adjective CHILL. So does Mr Fisher’s quatraine.
How many letters does the black-arrow quatraine involve? One hundred and twenty. Have I inscribed each one of Tony’s letters on my yellow page? ‘No!’ cries a clever educated voice from the University of Lilliput. ‘Don’t be stupid.’
But the correct answer turns out to be YES. Four minutes later, having drawn one hundred and twenty strokes with my pen, I realize that the clever educated voice belongs to a useless idiot. Alleluia! The runes are read.
I need fresh air. What should I do? Wake up the swimsuited Sleeping Beauty? No. I’ll write her a note, and leave the shed quietly.
GRETA, DEAR, I’VE GONE OUT FOR A TWO-MILE RUN, HAVING DISCOVERED THAT WHEN THE 169 LETTERS OF LADY BERYL’S SHORT POEM ARE TAKEN AWAY FROM HER LONG 289-LETTER POEM, THE 120 LETTERS OF TONY FISHER’S QUATRAINE REMAIN.
Consider the case of an underslept man who has received a British classical education. Moonlight and a street-lamp can similize panoramas in that man’s garden. For four seconds a fearless feral Naiad favours me with a gelid scrutiny. Should I be in bed? Even Mr Byatt and his telescope are at rest.
It should be evident by now to faithful readers of these pages that David Crookes holds beauty of all varieties in reverence and has a unique talent for creating it in most of those varieties. Mr. Crookes resides in Belfast, Northern Ireland.