That I live, a freakish twist in my untrod peculiar path, known by mortal man to be Fate; that I, now, after these many years, may speak of the events of that evening, both a blessing and a curse ― for I know not, nor any man, the nature of that fateful path-maker, drawing as I do, upon that which came to pass before my eyes aflood, then, as now, with lachrymose profusion.
If you have tears, do not waste them, as I, whose very own serve but as fluid reminders of the blind love their houses did offer Commander Strangways, my father.
British born, he had lived in ‘the provinces’, as he derisively described them ― America ― for some twenty years, first as a Confederate officer of a brigade he financed, then as a blockade runner, from which he profited mightily, and finally as an even more prospering builder of the British invention he laid claim to, railroads.
There he had co-founded the Cosmos Club of Washington,
D.C. , the London branch of which he also brought into being, of which I am still the honorary Secretary.
Orphaned at a young age I found myself aboard one of his ships and, at a confluent intersecting of then presumed fortune and fear, had somehow saved the ship, his person aboard, from Union capture along with a kingly cargo of contraband. Adopted by him, I was brought back to England, he determined to make a crude, yet appreciatively worshipful, lad a proper ‘gentleman’.
And, so it was, that I, Jedidiah Daniel Strangways, Club Secretary and Director, both survived and perished that Saturday of December 16, 1899. For it was on that eve, in keeping with father’s personal point of honor to graciously greet every new member into the Cosmos London and, that evening, he was in rare animated spirits, even at 80 years of age.
Said to have been scion of a wealthy Boer family of Pretoria, this new member had survived a savage man-eating lion’s mauling at Tsavo River, Kenya only the year preceding. While he obviously had survived, it was with such a scathing that he required two heavy wooden walking sticks of ornate African design, often seen, according to father, in the possession only of very holy shamanic warriors; even with their aid, he walked at seeming right angles to his torso, as it were. And, his voice box had been put asunder, his surgeons, it was allowed by his laboriously wrought hand-written note, of course, awestruck that his jugular had been missed. All these details were unknown to father, by choice, and by club tradition.
Not known to miss an opportunity to practice opportunism, father proceeded to monopolize the otherwise customary dialogue, doubtless mockingly doing with his wagging tongue what the silence-bringing lion had to his captive audience. In a gesture of feigned courtesy so characteristic of the man, I was to be at the ready to interpret his signing language, acquired by me of necessity aboard many many-tongued ships in my seagoing youth.
He began: “’Tis good to have ye with ears intact, good sir; though our peoples may have been in enmity, you are welcomed, nonetheless, to the Cosmos: we, like the Greeks who coined the all-embracing term, welcome all, who…welcome ALL . . . ideas, you see!”
And, so it went, for some moments, the new member respectfully, as well as needfully, mute, but with eyes such as I cannot recall amongst the most savage of swabs at sea.
With the preliminaries done, father proceeded to ask for a slim volume from his proudly displayed, and locked, library acquired mostly in America. He opened its pages and began anew:
“Now, it is our custom, in keeping with our charter, to introduce new notions to our ken: here is one such―it has never been heard here or anywhere I know of, as it was unknown till I came upon it by chance, as it were: the fact that I had heard of it made Mr. Chance his very self all the more favorable, to me!” Wheezing laughter gushed forth, unjoined, by choice or otherwise, ere, it would have been the same.
His laughter was a fine, uproarious noise and he indulged it to the seeming relish of his solitary guest, as the latter breached his thin, rebuilt lips with a stoical, but very palpable smirk.
Father began to read: “ An abbess of the ancient Order of Felicity dwelt within that cloister near enough to the environs of Prague and its teeming markets so as to see far too many mendicants. Her generous name knew the tongues―and their hungry, sparsely gated houses―of all these, and one especially piteous one, lower still than even their impoverished status. “
“Find him a bit stilted, at times, do you not?” father asked his guest, not pausing even for a nod or shrug from his audience of one, preferring instead his own, known response.
“Best work is about or prominently features, as it were, wilding creatures―The Raven, his apex, really , , , ” He dismissed the author whose rare book, itself, he treasured, equally scornful of irony itself.
“Well, he goes on as he is wont to do with a long passage about feral cats ― oh yes, nearly left the bloody thing out ― although, wasn’t really a cat, you see.” He then jumped ahead some ten pages or so.
“Where is it ― ah, here: ‘The pitiful shrunken creature was indeed unique among the throng of beggars who found way to the Abbey in no small measure, owing to the observable anguish supervening the usual―if be there such among the, per se, unusual―supply of that suffering, a byproduct of its probable longing to have, at least once, been of such a dimension as to have shrunk from it.’
Now, there, I was moved, as was father, for he ceased his bloviations for a full term of a minute.
“My observation once again: this crippled, misshapen dwarf was a virtual animal.”
It was then that the attentive Boer cleared his throat rather viscerally, doubtless owing to his internally disordered condition, I recall thinking; and his eyes beamed clear and bright as if through some unknowable optically foreign lens.
“At any rate, this small thing is taken in by Sister Katarina who, together with the other nuns, create a feline costume as it were for her, er, it . . . complete with a rather elaborate head piece: he fails here to describe it adequately, in my view―now, this is due to the fact that she would not be permitted to stay, else; the Bishop’s large mastiff, is a real nemesis; after a period of avoiding it and warming to her new-found sisters in suffering . . . ” Rolling his eyes, father made plain his contempt to such overt absence of contempt by these foolish women.
“Her name was called Grimalkin . . . their own private humor, referring to the ancient Saxon term for grey, lowly old woman―and, as she ate but little and gratefully from their meagerness, but for the mastiff, she could remain. To conclude, as the hour does not tarry, and your frailty, dear sir, is owed it, thusly confronted with death’s reflection once again, how does the grimalkin behave? Well, the wildness of the creature prevails: the Bishop is garroted with her false tail and fed to the dog! It later becoming her guardian.”
There followed a passive stretching out of the Boer’s twisted limbs, while father digressed toward the Club’s unusual charter, including quotes from Poe’s equally unpublished ‘Marginalia,’ with accent upon its outstanding morsels: ‘imp of the perverse’, a plot of God’, and father’s favorite, indeed mine, ‘unmasking which also tears away the face.’
Some moments later, father quoted from Poe’s ‘Eureka’, sections of the stunning vision’s, also unpublished, musings on the Cosmos having become verbatim the essence of the Club’s credo.
He then snatched up the extant copy of the London Times, mocking a story concerning the horrific rampage of man-eating lions at the railroad works in Kenya.
“Here, for one more moment indulge the griping of an old fool: this business at Tsavo river, at the railroad right of way, I am an old railroad man, and this is rubbish: this bloody cub reporter lionizes . . . ” He paused then in self-amusement for his word play. “One of the beasts who, it seems, had spared the life of an African tribal shaman in exchange for a spell of sorts; indeed, ‘shape-shifting’, even the Greeks with their Proteus knew it to be a mere poetic metaphor, but these bloody Africans, fools, all . . . Poe might as leave have penned this! I say, ‘penned,’ quite . . . fitting for such wild things, hah!!”
“There it is my good man.”
Suddenly, I was summoned to read the Boer’s signing: “And, what of the so-called beast whose place, home, is invaded?”
Father did not hesitate, as if he had baited the stranger: “ Brother Darwin, old man―the fittest survive, to tell the crimson tale, despite tooth and claw!”
Father placed his thumb and middle finger together, forming the dismissive nonverbal punctuation mark of the triumphant, and, as those gnarled swirled ridges of those firm though aged digits issued their arrogant sound, his head, father’s prideful head, was cleanly snapped away from the now spewing torsal stump it had sat atop.
The Boer, now dipped its four legs with seeming purpose in the flood of hemoglobin now strangely complementing the crimson-colored carpet of Persia beneath it. A glance of its now horizontal gaze and it was gone.
My pen now at rest, I place my head on pillow, lightly, wondering what passes through the grey imperious head of my own grimalkin, a stray at my door some years ago, now, with her own remotely foreign intelligent stare.