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Authors: Anthony Powell

Tags: #Social life and customs, #Biography, #20th Century, #ENGL, #Fiction, #England, #Autobiography, #Autobiographical fiction, #General, #english

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BOOK: Hearing secret harmonies
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‘We were there some years ago, coming home from that part of the world. Are you planning to park near the Stones?’

It was a characteristic ‘long barrow’, set on the edge of a valley, two uprights supporting a capstone, entrance to a chambered tomb. The place had been thoroughly excavated.

‘As near as sanctity allows.’

Murtlock answered curtly.

‘Sanctity was being disturbed a good deal by tourists when we were there.’

A look of anger passed over his face, either at the comment, or thought of the tourists. He was quite formidable when he looked angry.

‘If you’re interested in archaeological sites, we’ve a minor one just over the hill from here. You probably know about it. The Devil’s Fingers – The Fingers, as Mr Gauntlett calls it.’

If he knew something of Mr Gauntlett’s house being haunted, he might well have heard of The Devil’s Fingers. The name seemed new to him. He became at once more attentive.

‘It’s worth a visit, if you like that sort of thing. Only a short detour from the road you’ll probably be taking in any case.’

‘A prehistoric grave?’

‘No doubt once, though that’s been disputed.’

‘What remains?’

‘Two worn pillars about five foot high, and the same distance apart.’

‘No portal?’

‘Only the supports survive, if that’s what they are.’

‘The Threshold.’

‘If a tomb, the burial chamber has long disappeared through ploughing. The general consensus of archaeological opinion accepts the place as a neolithic grave. There have been dissentient theories – boundary stones in the Dark Ages, and so on. They don’t amount to much. Local patriotism naturally makes one want the place to be as ancient as possible. The lintel probably went for building purposes in one of the farms round about. The uprights may have been too hard to extract. In any case there’s usually a superstition that you can’t draw such stones from the earth. Even if you do, they walk back again.’

‘Why the name?’

‘One Midsummer night, long ago, a girl and her lover were lying naked on the grass. The sight of the girl’s body tempted the Devil. He put out his hand towards her. Owing to the night also being the Vigil of St John, the couple invoked the Saint, and just managed to escape. When the Devil tried to withdraw his hand, two of his fingers got caught in the outcrop of rock you find in these quarrying areas. There they remain in a petrified condition.’

Murtlock was silent. He seemed suddenly excited.

‘Any other legends about the place?’

‘The couple are sometimes seen dancing there. They were saved from the Devil, but purge their sin by eternal association with its scene.’

‘They dance naked?’

‘I presume.’

‘On Midsummer Night?’

‘I don’t know whether only on the anniversary, or all the year round. In rather another spirit, rickety children used to be passed between the Stones to effect a cure.’

That was one of Mr Gauntlett’s stories.

‘Is the stag-mask dance known to have been performed there?’

‘I’ve never heard that. In fact I’ve never heard of the stag-mask dance.’

Murtlock was certainly well up in these things.

‘Do the Stones bleed if a dagger is thrust in them at the Solstices?’

‘I’ve never heard that either. There’s the usual tale that at certain times – when the cock crows at midnight, I think the Stones go down to the brook below to drink.’

Murtlock made no comment.

‘Covetous people have sometimes taken that opportunity for seeking treasure in the empty sockets, and been crushed on the unexpected return of the Stones. The Stones’ drinking habits are threatened. They will have to remain thirsty, unless the efforts of various people are successful. One of the quarries is trying to extend in that direction. They want to fill up the stream. Local opposition is being rallied. Where else will the Stones be able to quench their thirst? That was what the old farmer who talked to us was referring to.’

This time Murtiock showed no interest. The threat to The Devil’s Fingers might have been judged something to shock anyone who had spoken of the sanctity of another prehistoric site, but he seemed altogether unmoved. At least he enquired no further as to the conservation problem as presented to him. He did, however, ask how the place could be reached, showing close attention when Isobel explained. He discarded all his elaborately mystical façade while listening to instructions of that sort.

‘Is it a secluded spot?’

‘About half-a-dozen fields from the road.’

‘On high ground?’

‘I’d guess about five or six hundred feet.’

‘Surrounded by grass?’

‘Plough, when we were last there, but the farmer may have gone back to grass.’


‘The Stones stand in an elder thicket on the top of a ridge. It’s one of those characteristic settings. The land the other side slopes down to the stream.’

Murtlock thought for a moment or two. His face was pallid now. He seemed quite agitated at what he had been told. This physical reaction on his part suggested in him something more than the mere calculating ambition implied by Hugo’s story. Forces perhaps stronger than himself dominating him, made it possible for him also to dominate by the strength of his own feelings. He turned abruptly on the others, standing passively by while his interrogation was taking place.

‘Tomorrow we’ll go first to The Devil’s Fingers. We’ll reach there by dawn.’

They concurred.

‘You’ll find it of interest.’

He made an odd gesture, indicative of impatience, amazement, contempt, at the inadequacy of such a comment in the context. Then his more mundane half-amused air returned.

‘Barnabas will leave the bucket by the kitchen door when we set out in the morning.’

‘That would be kind.’

‘Don’t forget, Barnabas.’

Henderson’s lip trembled slightly. He muttered that it would be done.

‘Then we’ll bid you goodbye,’ said Isobel.

Fiona, assuming the expression of one taking medicine, allowed herself to be kissed. Henderson rather uneasily offered a hand, keeping an eye on Murtlock in case he was doing wrong. Rusty gave a grin, and a sort of wave. Murtlock himself raised his right hand. The gesture was not far short of benediction. There was a feeling in the air that, to be wholly correct, Isobel and I should have intoned some already acquired formula to convey that gratitude as to the caravan’s visit was something owed only by ourselves. There was a short pause while this antiphon remained unvoiced. Then, since nothing further seemed forthcoming on either side, each party turned away from the other. The four visitors moved towards the caravan, there to perform whatever rites or duties, propitiatory or culinary, might lie before them. We returned to the house.

‘I agree with whoever it was thought the dark young man creepy,’ said Isobel.

‘Just a bit.’

Departure the following morning must have taken place as early as announced. No one heard them go. A candle had apparently proved superfluous, because Henderson never arrived to demand one. His own responsibilities, material and moral, must have turned out too onerous for him to have remembered about the bucket. It was found, not by the kitchen door, but on its side in the grass among the tracks of the caravan. The crayfish were gone. Traces of a glutinous substance, later rather a business to clean out, adhered to the bucket’s sides, which gave off an incenselike smell. Isobel thought there was a suggestion of camphor. A few charred laurel leaves also remained in an empty tomato juice tin. Whatever the scents left behind, they were agreed to possess no narcotic connotations. This visit, well defined in the mind at the time, did not make any very lasting impression, Fiona and her companions manifesting themselves as no more than transient representatives of a form of life bound, sooner or later, to move into closer view. Their orientation might be worth attention, according to mood; meanwhile other things took precedence.


TWO COMPENSATIONS FOR GROWING OLD are worth putting on record as the condition asserts itself. The first is a vantage point gained for acquiring embellishments to narratives that have been unfolding for years beside one’s own, trimmings that can even appear to supply the conclusion of a given story, though finality is never certain, a dimension always possible to add. The other mild advantage endorses a keener perception for the authenticities of mythology, not only of the traditional sort, but – when such are any good – the latterday mythologies of poetry and the novel. One such fragment, offering a gloss on the crayfishing afternoon, cropped up during the summer months of the same year, when I was reading one night after dinner.

The book, Harington’s translation of
Orlando Furioso
– bedside romance of every tolerably well-educated girl of Byron’s day – now requires, if not excuse, at least some sort of explanation. Twenty years before, writing a book about Robert Burton and his
Anatomy of Melancholy
, I had need to glance at Ariosto’s epic, Burton being something of an Ariosto fan. Harington’s version (lively, but inaccurate) was then hard to come by; another (less racy, more exact), just as suitable for the purpose. Although by no means all equally readable, certain passages of the poem left a strong impression. Accordingly, when a new edition of Harington’s
Orlando Furioso
appeared, I got hold of it. I was turning the pages that evening with the sense – essential to mature enjoyment of any classic – of being entirely free from responsibility to pause for a second over anything that threatened the least sign of tedium.

In spite of the title, Orlando’s madness plays a comparatively small part in the narrative’s many convolutions. This does not mean Ariosto himself lacked interest in that facet of his story. On the contrary, he is profoundly concerned with the cause – and cure – of Orlando’s mental breakdown. What happened? Orlando (Charlemagne’s Roland), a hero, paladin, great man, had gone off his head because his girl, Angelica, beautiful, intelligent, compassionate, everything a nice girl should be – so to speak female counterpart of Orlando himself – had abandoned him for a nonentity. She had eloped with a good-looking utterly boring young man. Ariosto allows the reader to remain in absolutely no doubt as to the young man’s total insignificance. The situation is clearly one that fascinates him. He emphasizes the vacuity of mind shown by Angelica’s lover in a passage describing the young man’s carving of their intertwined names on the trunks of trees, a whimsicality that first reveals to Orlando himself his own banal predicament.

Orlando’s ego (his personal myth, as General Conyers would have said) was murderously wounded. He found himself altogether incapable of making the interior adjustment required to continue his normal routine of living the Heroic Life. His temperament allowing no half measures, he chose, therefore, the complete negation of that life. Discarding his clothes, he lived henceforth in deserts and waste places, roaming hills and woods, gaining such sustenance as he might, while waging war against a society he had renounced. In short, Orlando dropped out.

Ariosto describes how one of Orlando’s friends, an English duke named Astolpho, came to the rescue. Riding a hippogryph (an intermediate beast Harington calls his ‘Griffith Horse’, like the name of an obscure poet), Astolpho undertook a journey to the Moon. There, in one of its valleys, he was shown all things lost on Earth: lost kingdoms: lost riches: lost reputations: lost vows: lost hours: lost love. Only lost foolishness was missing from this vast stratospheric Lost Property Office, where by far the largest accretion was lost sense. Although he had already discovered in this store some of his lost days and lost deeds, Astolpho was surprised to come across a few of his own lost wits, simply because he had never in the least missed them. He had a duty to perform here, which was to bring back from his spacetrip the wits (mislaid on an immeasurably larger scale than his own) of his old friend and comrade-in-arms, Orlando. It was Astolpho’s achievement – if so to be regarded – to restore to Orlando his former lifestyle, make feasible for him the resumption of the Heroic Life.

Journeys to the Moon were in the news at that moment (about a year before the astronauts actually landed there) because Pennistone had just published his book on Cyrano de Bergerac, whose
Histoire comique des états et empires de la lune
he used to discuss, when we were in the War Office together. Pennistone was more interested in his subject as philosopher and heresiarch than space-traveller, but, all the same, Cyrano had to be admitted as an example of a remark once made by X. Trapnel: ‘A novelist writes what he is. That is equally true of authors who deal with mediaeval romance or journeys to the Moon.’ I don’t think Trapnel had ever read Ariosto, feel pretty sure he had never attempted Cyrano – though he could surprise by unexpected authors dipped into – but, oddly enough,
Orlando Furioso
does treat of both Trapnel’s off-the-cuff fictional categories, mediaeval romance and an interplanetary journey.

Among other adventures on the Moon, during this expedition, Astolpho sees Time at work. Ariosto’s Time – as you might say, Time the Man – was, anthropomorphically speaking, not necessarily everybody’s Time. Although equally hoary and naked, he was not Poussin’s Time, for example, in the picture where the Seasons dance, while Time plucks his lyre to provide the music. Poussin’s Time (a painter’s Time) is shown in a sufficiently unhurried frame of mind to be sitting down while he strums his instrument. The smile might be thought a trifle sinister, nevertheless the mood is genial, composed.

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