Sunday, 20 March 2011

An Old Song

I've just been persevering with the remainder of Maxwell Gray's 1899 story collection The World's Mercy, whose title story I mentioned a few weeks ago ("It was a dark and stormy night").

An Old Song is core Maxwell Gray territory, a small-town drama of lost love, clergymen, disowning, and redemption. This is the one with the Bulwer-Lyttonish "dark and stormy night" introduction:

The night was stormy; a wan moon rode through masses of black and gold, swift-sailing cloud, through lakes of clear blue space and threads of opal and silver film, thus producing a wildly beautiful and impressive series of sky pictures. Now and again the dim wet streets were swept empty and dark by a scud of rain, then as suddenly flooded by clear, pale moonlight, when the wet flags and streaming runnels became a dazzling silver brilliance, making the light from houses appear duller and dimmer than before.

The stranger
On this wet night in a small town, we're introduced to a mysterious stranger wearing an Inverness cape who walks the streets for several pages before going into a musical concert. Standing at the back, he is repeatedly shaken by emotion, especially by the sight of the soprano singer, a Miss Ruby Elliott, and by her rendition of the song of lost love, Robin Adair.

We find from a Greek chorus of locals the details of some of the cast of the story: Beatrice Ford (Ruby is her stage name); the elderly vicar Dr Ashworth; and a younger and apparently nasty vicar, Vereker. The stranger, who has evidently come home after a long absence, goes on his way, but not before a burst of authorial purple prose.

Oh, rosemary, rosemary, bitter-sweet, wholesome herb, you always bring tears, not idle, but "from the depths of some divine despair," whether recalling bliss or woe, sunshine or tempest! Your fragrance is the scent of unforgotten youth, which was sweet and is bitter in retrospect; which was fresher than May dew and is now old as a mossed, illegible tombstone; which was sad and is now sweet as pressed rose leaves; which was gloomy with despair, and is now, seen in the hot meridian of life, glorious with auroral hues of hope. Grow not in my garden, tear-watered, melancholy herb; rather let some tributary of Lethe flow stilly round the flower plots, some dreaming lotus plant float on its fountain's brim! I cannot tell what the magic herb brought to the lonely man's mind ; it breaks my heart only to think of him, pacing the wet flags in darkness, in sight of the lighted house, not quite alone, since he was face to face with his past.

After the concert, Beatrice visits her relatives the Westlands, and conversation drifts round to the topic of "poor Bob Ashworth", the Reverend Ashworth's son Robin. He had been a likeable, musically talented, but mildly irresponsible young man, whose life had been somewhat blighted by his repressive father and by his friendship with Vereker ("a liar and a sneak"), and who left town under a cloud.

Mr Westland then tells the story of "the black bishop", which to a modern reader is fairly excruciating for its racist language. Years previously, some staid church people in town were due a visit from an African cleric, the Bishop of Nigritia. The Bishop arrived, and proceeded to shock everyone with lurid stories of how he was a converted cannibal. Then the real Bishop arrived ("a genuine shiny-faced nigger"); the false one was Robin in disguise, and Vereker was in on the joke. Robin, however, got all the blame, and after a confrontation with his father, left the house, and disappeared for a long time.

Beatrice, staying overnight with the Westlands after the concert, reveals more of the story in conversation with Mrs Westland. Mr Westland had brokered a reconciliation with Robin and his father, and after his return Robin had been a frequent visitor at the house of Beatrice's uncles (for whom he worked) and a musical partner for Beatrice. At this point in the telling, Beatrice becomes upset, telling how, on a skating outing, Robin admitted that he loved her. The feeling was mutual, but on their return to the house, Robin was summoned to a family meeting, when it was found that he had stolen money in his pockets. In exchange for a promise not prosecute, he was told to leave. Beatrice had received a postcard saying he was quitting town, and he had never been seen since.

The next day, at the end of a sultry Sunday, the local church is packed, a guest organist playing superbly. In mid-sermon, there's a sudden storm and thunderclap, and lightning sets fire to the church. The gas lights go out, leaving the church in semi-darkness.

Then followed a scene beyond imagining; the building that a moment before had resounded with psalmody, measured, solemn, swelled by hundreds of reverent voices, and borne upon billows of rolling organ music, that had echoed the outpoured prayer and praise of a worshipping multitude, words of prophet and evangelist, and the well-known voice of the preacher, was filled with sounds of terror and wrath, anguish and despair; shrieks of frightened, trampled women and children; threats and execrations of maddened men, trying here to free a passage, there to stem the on-rush of the congested crowd, that prevented the inward opening of doors, round which raged a fierce fight in the dark; calling of parent to child, child to parent, friend to friend; cracking of woodwork where people forced pew doors and climbed hither and thither; groans and cries of pain; shattering of glass where a window was climbed and forced; and ever through the thick, heavy dark, terribly invaded at moments by blinding flashes of lightning, the weird, unearthly clashing of the church bells, the hiss and drum of rain on the roofs, the sullen, fierce growl, the low, distant rumble, or loud crash and roar of savage thunder

It reminds me of the scene in Hilaire Belloc's George, Who played with a Dangerous Toy, and suffered a Catastrophe of considerable Dimensions.

However, all is not lost. A deep and powerful baritone voice calls, "Keep your places! Be men!" and begins to sing "O God, our help in ages past", before being joined by Beatrice (who is in the church) and then by organ music. Calm is restored, and the church evacuated in an orderly manner. The organ continues to play even as the fire engines arrive; no-one can quite remember when it stops. It turns out that the mystery organist has saved the congregation in more ways than morale-boosting; he had turned off the gas, and closed and locked the organ stairwell from inside to stop the fire spreading. They find his smoke-suffocated body in the morning; it's the stranger from the beginning of the story, who is of course Robin Ashworth.

The end
The images come from Atalanta (a protofeminist girl's magazine), whose October 1896 carries an illustrated version of the story (here at the Internet Archive). The pictures seem to be a kind of Victorian photoshopping; posed photographs mildly modified as paintings.

The remaining stories in The World's Mercy are called Sweet Revenge, A Summer Night, and The Widow's Clock.

The first could be classed a romantic farce, set around a "Carlen Castle" - highly identifiable as Carisbrooke. Gerald Dover is trying to engineer a match between his rich heiress cousin Rosalind and the young and penniless Sir Wilfrid Carr. En route to visit Rosalind, whom he has never met, Wilfrid visits Carlen Castle where, it happens, Rosalind and her friend Margery are cutting flowers. Taking the pair for village girls, he gives away his intentions of courting the heiress; the girls in turn pretend the heiress is old and ugly. Wilfred is, any case, attracted to Margery, and gets a slap for trying to kiss her. When they are all subsequently introduced formally, Wilfrid is thoroughly and rightly embarrassed; but Rosalind realises he is a good sort and bankrolls his match to Margery (revealed as Rosalind’s cousin) to the tune of £15,000.

A Summer Night is a slice-of-life story about a small-town doctor, not unlike MG's father, who is called out to a village tragedy, when a farmer accidentally shoots his wife during an argument about her old boyfriend, who has returned after deserting from the army. The Widow's Clock is in many ways the best of the batch, a simple and charming psychological story told in Isle of Wight dialect. A widow becomes depressed and ill after her son’s financial troubles force her to sell her clock, her only treasured possession. She is restored to health when her daughter’s boyfriend takes a job with its buyer, and through shrewd negotiation manages to buy it back.

I didn't find this anthology to be Maxwell Gray at her best.

"Vereker", incidentally, caught my eye as an unusual name. I wonder whether MG picked it up from novels of the time (the 1888 The Honourable Mrs. Vereker or the 1897 Violet Vereker's Vanity) or from her Isle of Wight origins? (The Verekers were an aristocratic Anglo-Irish dynasty who owned the now-demolished East Cowes Castle in the late 19th century).

- Ray


  1. Interestingly ... to me, at any rate ... the story rang a loud bell.

    I eventually tracked it down mentally as a TV detective drama I saw a zillion years ago, all identifying details of which now escape me. The figure at the back, in that case, turned out to be an American gangster and the song was Danny Boy ... but I'm personally convinced that it was based on this Gray.

  2. Never, ever use one word where two might do.