MoboReader > Literature > South Wind

   Chapter 3 No.3

South Wind By Norman Douglas Characters: 24515

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


Concerning the life and martyrdom of Saint Dodekanus, patron of Nepenthe, we possess hardly any information of a trustworthy nature. It is with his career as with that of other saints: they become overlaid-encrusted, as it were-with extraneous legendary material in the course of ages, even as a downward-rolling avalanche gathers snow. The nucleus is hard to find. What is incontestably true may be summed up almost in one paragraph.

He was born in A.D. 450, or thereabouts, in the city of Kallisto, in Crete. He was an only child, a beautiful but unruly boy, the despair of his widowed mother. At the age of thirteen he encountered, one evening, an elderly man of thoughtful mien, who addressed him in familiar language. On several later occasions he discoursed with the same personage, in a grove of laurels and pines known as Alephane; but what passed between them, and whether it was some divine apparition, or merely a man of flesh and blood, was never discovered, for he seems to have kept his mother in ignorance of the whole affair. From that time onward his conduct changed. He grew pensive, mild, and charitable. He entered, as youthful acolyte, a neighbouring Convent of Salacian monks, and quickly distinguished himself for piety and the gift of miracles. In the short space of three years, or thereabouts, he had healed eight lepers, caused the clouds to rain, walked dryshod over several rivers, and raised twenty-three persons from the dead.

At the age of eighteen he had a second vision. This time it was a young woman, of pleasing exterior. He discoursed with her, on several occasions, in the grove of laurels and pines known as Alephane; but what passed between them, and whether it was a woman of flesh and blood, or merely an angel, was never discovered, for he seems to have kept his brother monks in ignorance of the whole affair. From that time onward his conduct changed. He grew restless and desirous of converting the heathen. He set sail for Lybia, suffered shipwreck in the Greater Syrtis, and narrowly escaped with his life. Thence he passed onward, preaching to black nations as he moved along, and converting tribes innumerable. For three-and-thirty years he wandered till, one evening, he saw the moon rise on the right side of his face.

He had entered the land of the Crotalophoboi, cannibals and necromancers who dwelt in a region so hot, and with light so dazzling, that their eyes grew on the soles of their feet. Here he laboured for eighty years, redeeming them to Christianity from their magical and bloodthirsty practices. In recompense whereof they captured him at the patriarchal age of 132, or thereabouts, and bound him with ropes between two flat boards of palmwood. Thus they kept the prisoner, feeding him abundantly, until that old equinoctial feast drew near. On the evening of that day they sawed the whole, superstitiously, into twelve separate pieces, one for each month of the year; and devoured of the saint what was to their liking.

During this horrid banquet a femur or thigh-bone was accidentally cast upon a millstone which lay by the shore, having been borrowed by the Crotalophoboi from the neighbouring tribe of Garimanes a good many years previously and never returned to them by reason, they declared, of its excessive weight. There it remained till, one day, during a potent sirocco tempest, the stone was uplifted by the force of the waters, and miraculously wafted over the sea to Nepenthe. Forthwith a chapel was built on the spot, to commemorate the event and preserve the sacred relic which soon began working wonders for the good of the island, such as warding off Saracenic invasions, procuring plentiful vintages, and causing sterile cattle to produce offspring.

In later years the main church was dedicated to Saint Dodekanus and the relic moved thither and enclosed within that silver statue of the saint which is carried abroad in procession at his annual festival, or on any particular occasion when his help is to be invoked. And all through succeeding ages the cult of the saint waxed in pomp and splendour. Nobody, probably, has done more to foster pious feelings towards their island-patron than the Good Duke Alfred who, among other things, caused a stately frieze to be placed in the church, picturing in twelve marble tablets the twelve chief episodes in the life of the Saint-one for each month of the year. This frieze indeed was admired so unreservedly, so recklessly, that the Good Duke felt it his duty to remove the sculptor's eyes and (on second thoughts) his hands as well, in order that no other sovereign should possess works by so consummate a master of stonecraft. There the disciplinary measures ended. He did his best to console the gifted artist who was fed, henceforward, on lobsters, decorated with the order of the Golden Vine, and would doubtless have been ennobled after death, had the Prince not predeceased the sculptor.

Such, briefly, is the history of Saint Dodekanus, and the origin of his cult on Nepenthe.

Legends galore, often contradictory to this account and to one another, have clustered round his name, as was inevitable. He is supposed to have preached in Asia Minor; to have died as a young man, in his convent; to have become a hermit, a cobbler, a bishop (of Nicomedia), a eunuch, a politician. Two volumes of mediocre sermons in the Byzantine tongue have been ascribed to him. These and other crudities may be dismissed as apocryphal. Even his name has given rise to controversy, although its origin from the Greek word DODEKA, signifying twelve and alluding to the twelve morsels into which his body was superstitiously divided, is as self-evident as well can be. Thus a worthy young canon of the church of Nepenthe, Giacinto Mellino, who has lately written a life of Saint Eulalia, the local patroness of sailors-her festival occurs twelve days after that of Saint Dodekanus-takes occasion, in this otherwise commendable pamphlet, to scoff at the old-established derivation of the name and to propose an alternative etymology. He lays it down that then pagan inhabitants of the island, desirous of sharing in the benefits of Christianity which had already reached the mainland but left untouched their lonely rock, sent a missive to the bishop containing the two words DO DEKANUS: give us a deacon! The grammar is at fault, he explains, because of their rudimentary knowledge of the Latin tongue; they had only learnt, hitherto, the first person singular and the nominative case-so he says; and then proceeds to demonstrate, with unanswerable arguments, that Greek was the spoken language of Nepenthe at this period. Several scholars have been swayed by his specious logic to abandon the older and sounder interpretation. There are yet other conjectures about the word Dodekanus, all more or less fanciful….

If the Crotalophoboi had not devoured the missionary Dodekanus, we should assuredly never have heard of Monsignor Perrelli, the learned and genial historian of Nepenthe. It was that story, he expressly tells us, which inflamed him, a mere visitor to the place, with a desire to know more about the island. A people like the Nepentheans, who could cherish in their hearts a tale of such beauty, must be worthy, he concluded, "of the closest and most sympathetic scrutiny." Thus, one thing leading to another, as always happens where local researches are concerned, he soon found himself collecting other legends, traditions, historical data, statistics of agriculture and natural productions, and so forth. The result of these labours was embodied in the renowned ANTIQUITIES OF NEPENTHE.

This book, a model of its kind, is written in Latin. It seems to have been the author's only work, and has gone through several editions; the last one-by no means the best as regards typography-being that of 1709. The Crotalophoboi therefore, who procured the sanctification of Dodekanus by methods hardly commendable to decent folks, can be said to have done some good in the world, if the creation of a literary masterpiece like these ANTIQUITIES, for which they are indirectly responsible, may be classed under that head.

It is a pity we know so little of the life of this Monsignor Perrelli. He is disappointingly reticent about himself. We learn that he was a native of the mainland; that he came here, as a youth, afflicted with rheumatic troubles; that these troubles were relived by an application of those health-giving waters which he lived to describe in one of the happiest sections of his work, and which were to become famous to the world at large through certain classical experiments carried out under his contemporary, the Good Duke Alfred-a potentate who, by the way, does not seem to have behaved very prettily to our scholar. And that is absolutely all we know about him. The most painstaking enquiries on the part of Mr. Eames have failed to add a single item of positive information to our knowledge of the historian of Nepenthe. We cannot tell when, or where, he died. He seems to have ended in regarding himself as a native of the place. The wealth of material incorporated in the book leads to the supposition that he must have spent long years on the island. We may further presume, from his title, that he belonged to the church; it was the surest path of advancement for a young man of quality in those days.

A perfunctory glance into his pages will suffice to prove that he lacked what is called the ecclesiastical bent of mind. Reading between the lines, one soon discovers that his is not so much a priest as a statesman and philosopher, a student curious in the lore of mankind and of nature-alert, sagacious, discriminating. He tells us, for example, that this legend of the visions and martyrdom of Saint Dodekanus, which he was the first to disentangle from its heterogeneous accretions, was vastly to his liking. Why? Because of its churchly flavour? Not so; but because he detected therein "truth and symbol. It is a tale of universal applicability; the type, as it were, of every great man's life, endeavour, and reward." The introduction to these ANTIQUITIES, setting forth his maxims for the writing of history, might have been composed not three centuries ago, but yesterday-or even to-morrow; so modern is its note.

Hearken to these weighty words:

"Portraiture of characters and events should take the form of one gentleman conversing with another, in the easy tone of good society. The author who sets out to address a crowd defeats his own object; he eliminates the essence of good writing-frankness. You cannot be frank with men of low condition. You must presuppose a refined and congenial listener, a man or woman whom you would not hesitate to take by the hand and lead into the circle of your own personal friends. If this applies to literature of every kind, it applies to history in a peculiar degree.

"History deals with situations and figures not imaginary but real. It demands therefore a combination of qualities unnecessary to the poet or writer of romance-glacial judgment coupled with fervent sympathy. The poet may be an inspired illiterate, the romance-writer an uninspired hack. Under no circumstances can either of them be accused of wronging or deceiving the public, however incongruous their efforts. They write well or badly, and there the matter ends. The historian, who fails in his duty, deceives the reader and wrongs the dead. A man weighted with such responsibilities is deserving of an audience more than usually select-an audience of his equals, men of the world. No vulgarian can be admitted to share those confidences….

"The Greeks figured forth a Muse of History; they dared express their opinions. Genesis, that ancient barrier, did not exist for them. It stands in the way of the modern historian; it involves him in a ceaseless conflict with his own honesty. If he values his skin, he must accommodate himself to current dogmas and refrain from truthful comments and conclusions. He has the choice of being a chronologer or a ballad-monger-obsolete and unimportant occupations. Unenviable fate of those who aspire to be teachers of mankind, that they themselves should be studied with a kind of antiquarian intere

st, stimulating thought not otherwise than as warning examples! Clio has fallen from her pedestal. That radiant creature, in identifying her interests with those of theocracy, has become the hand-maiden of a withered and petulant mistress, a mercenary slut. So things will remain, till mankind has acquired a fresh body of ethics, corresponding to modern needs. It is useless, it is dangerous, to pour new wine into old bottles…."

He carries out his theory. The work of Monsignor Perrelli is, above all things, a human document-the revelation of a personality cultured and free from prejudice. Indeed, when one considers the religious situation of those days, he seems to be sailing perilously near the wind in some of his theological reflections; so much so, that Mr. Eames often wondered whether this might not account for our ignorance of his later life and the manner of his death. He held it possible that the scholar may have fallen into the clutches of the Inquisition, never again to return to the surface of society. It would explain why the first edition of the ANTIQUITIES is so extremely rare, and why the two subsequent ones were issued, respectively, at Amsterdam and Bale.

Incidentally, the book contains in its nine hundred pages all that could possibly interest a contemporary student about the history and natural products of Nepenthe. It is still a mine of antiquarian information, though large sections of the work have inevitably become obsolete. To bring the ANTIQUITIES up to date by means of a revised and enlarged version enriched with footnotes, appendixes and copious illustrations, was the ambition, the sole ambition, of Mr. Ernest Eames, R.A….

It was not true to say of this gentleman that he fled from England to Nepenthe because he forged his mother's will, because he was arrested while picking the pockets of a lady at Tottenham Court Road Station, because he refused to pay for the upkeep of his seven illegitimate children, because he was involved in a flamboyant scandal of unmentionable nature and unprecedented dimensions, because he was detected while trying to poison the rhinoceros at the Zoo with an arsenical bun, because he strangled his mistress, because he addressed an almost disrespectful letter to the Primate of England beginning "My good Owl"-or for any suchlike reason; and that he now remained on the island only because nobody was fool enough to lend him the ten pounds requisite for a ticket back again.

He came there originally to save money; and he stayed there originally because, if he had happened to die on his homeward journey, there would not have been enough coppers in his pocket to pay for the funeral expenses. Nowadays, having solved the problem of how to live on 85 pounds a year, he stayed for another reason as well: to annotate Perrelli's ANTIQUITIES. It sweetened his self-imposed exile.

He was a dry creature, almost wizened, with bright eyes and a short moustache; unostentatiously dressed; fastidious, reserved, genteel, precise in manner, and living a retired life in a two-roomed cottage somewhere among the vineyards.

He had taken a high degree in classics, though Greek was never much to his taste. It was "runaway stuff"; nervous and sensuous; it opened up too many vistas, philological and social, for his positive mind to assimilate with comfort. Those particles alone-there was something ambiguous, something almost disreputable, in their jocund pliability, their readiness to lend themselves to improper uses. But Latin-ah, Latin was different! Even at his preparatory school, where he was known as a swot of the first water, he had displayed an unhealthy infatuation for that tongue; he loved its cold, lapidary construction; and while other boys played football or cricket, this withered little fellow used to lark about with a note-book, all by himself, torturing sensible English into its refractory and colourless periods and elaborating, without the help of a Gradus, those inept word-mosaics which are called Latin verses. "Good fun," he used to say, "and every bit as exciting as algebra," as though that constituted a recommendation. Often the good form master shook his head, and enquired anxiously whether he was feeling unwell, or had secret troubles of any kind.

"Oh, no, sir," he would then reply, with a funny little laugh. "Thank you, sir. But please, sir! Would you mind telling me whether PECUNIA really comes from PECUS? Because Adams minor (another swot) says it doesn't."

Later on, at the University, he used the English language for the sake of convenience-in order to make himself understood by Dons and Heads of Colleges. His thoughts, his dreams, were in Latin.

Such a man, arriving almost penniless on Nepenthe, might have passed a torpid month or two, then drifted into the Club-set and gone to the dogs altogether. Latin saved him. He took to studying those earlier local writers who often composed in that tongue. The Jesuitical smoothness, the saccharine felicity of authors like Giannettasio had just begun to pall on his fancy, when the ANTIQUITIES fell into his hands. It was like a draught of some generous southern wine, after a course of barley-water. Here was Latin worth reading; rich, sinewy, idiomatic, full of flavour, masculine. Flexible, yet terse. Latin after his own heart; a cry across the centuries!

So bewitched was Mr. Eames with the grammar and syntax of the ANTIQUITIES that he had already gone through the book three times ere realizing that this man, who could construct such flowing, glowing sentences, was actually writing about something. Yes, he had something of uncommon interest to impart. And a gentleman, by Jove! So different from what one runs up against nowadays. He had an original way of looking at things-a human way. Very human. Those quaint streaks of credulity, those whimsical blasphemies, those spicy Court anecdotes dropped, as it were, in the smoking room of a patrician club-a rare old fellow! He would have given anything to have made his acquaintance.

Forthwith a change came over Mr. Ernest Eames. His frozen classical mind blossomed under the sunny stimulus of the Renaissance scholar. He entered upon a second boyhood-a real boyhood, this time, full of enthusiasms and adventures into flowery by-paths of learning. Monsignor Perrelli absorbed him. He absorbed Monsignor Perrelli. Marginal observation led to footnotes; footnotes to appendixes. He had found an interest in life. He would annotate the ANTIQUITIES.

In the section which deals with the life of Saint Dodekanus the Italian had displayed more than his usual erudition and acumen. He had sifted the records with such incredible diligence that little was left for the pen of an annotator, save words of praise. In two small matters, however, the Englishman, considerably to his regret, was enabled or rather obliged to add a postscript.

Many a time he cursed the day when his researches among the archives of the mainland brought him into contact with the unpublished chronicle of Father Capocchio, a Dominican friar of licorous and even licentious disposition, a hater of Nepenthe and a personal enemy, it seemed, of his idol Perrelli. His manuscript-the greater part of it, at all events-was not fit to be printed; not fit to be touched by respectable people. Mr. Eames felt it his duty to waive considerations of delicacy. In his capacity of annotator he would have plunged headlong into the Augean stables, had there been any likelihood of extracting therefrom the germs of a luminous footnote. He perused the manuscript, making notes as he went along. This wretched monk, he concluded, must have possessed a damnably intimate knowledge of Nepenthean conditions, and a cantankerous and crapulous turn of mind, into the bargain. He never lost an opportunity of denigrating the island; he was determined, absolutely determined, to see only the bad side of things, so far as that place was concerned.

Regarding the pious relic, for instance,-the thigh-bone of the saint, preserved in the principal church-he wrote:

"A certain Perrelli who calls himself historian, which is as though one should call a mule a horse, or an ass a mule, brays loudly and disconnectedly about the femur of the local god. We have personally examined this priceless femur. It is not a femur, but a tibia. And it is the tibia not of a saint, but of a young cow or calf. We may mention, in passing, that we hold a diploma in anatomy from the Palermitan Faculty of Medicine."

That was Father Capocchio's way: bald to coarseness, whenever he lacked occasion to be obscene.

To Mr. Eames it would have mattered little, A PRIORI, whether the relic was a femur or a tibia, a cow or man. In this case, he liked to think it was the thigh-bone of a saint. He possessed an unusually strong dose of that Latin PIETAS, that reverence which consists in leaving things as they are, particularly when they have been described for the benefit of posterity, with the most engaging candour, by a man of Perrelli's calibre. Now an insinuation like this could not be slurred over. It was a downright challenge! The matter must be thrashed out. For four months he poured over books on surgery and anatomy. Then, having acquired a knowledge of the subject-adequate, though necessarily superficial-he applied to the ecclesiastical authorities for permission to view the relic. It was politely refused. The saintly object, they declared, could only be exhibited to persons professing the Roman Catholic Faith, and armed with a special recommendation from the bishop.

"These," he used to say, "are the troubles which lie in wait for a conscientious annotator."

On another point, that of a derivation of the saint's name, he was pained to discover in the pages of Father Capocchio an alternative suggestion, of which more anon. It caused him many sleepless nights. But on matters pertaining to the climate of Nepenthe, its inhabitants, products, minerals, water-supply, fisheries, trade, folk-lore, ethnology,-on questions such as these he had gathered much fresh information. Sheaves of stimulating footnotes had accumulated on his desk.

When would all this material be published?

Mr. Eames had not the faintest idea. Meanwhile he calmly went on collecting and collecting, and collecting. Something might turn up, one of these days. Everybody with the slightest pretensions to scholarship was interested in his work; many friends had made him offers of pecuniary assistance towards the printing of a book which could not be expected to be a source of profit to its publisher; the wealthy and good-natured Mr. Keith, in particular, used to complain savagely and very sincerely at not being allowed to assist to the extent of a hundred or two. There were days on which he seemed to yield to these arguments; days when he expanded and gave rein to his fancy, smiling in anticipation of that noble volume-the golden Latinity of Monsignor Perrelli enriched with twenty-five years' patient labour on the part of himself; days when he would go so far as to discuss prospective contracts, and bindings and photogravures, and margins, and paper. Everything, of course, was to be of appropriate quality-not pretentious, but distinguished. Oh, yes! A book of that kind-it must have a cachet of its own….

Then, suddenly, he would observe that he was joking; only joking.

The true Mr. Eames revealed and reasserted himself. He shrank from the idea. He closed up like a flower in the chill of night-fall. He was not going to put himself under obligations to anybody. He would keep his sense of personal independence, even if it entailed the sacrifice of a life's ambition. Owe no man anything! The words rang in his ears. They were his father's words. Owe no man anything! They were that gentleman's definition of a gentleman-a definition which was cordially approved by every other gentleman who, like Mr. Eames junior, happened to hold analogous views.

Gentlemen being rather scarce nowadays, we cannot but feel grateful to the Crotalophoboi for devouring Saint Dodekanus and paving the way, VIA the ANTIQUITIES of Monsignor Perrelli, for the refined personality of Mr. Eames-even if such was not their original intention.

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares