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   Chapter 40 No.40

South Wind By Norman Douglas Characters: 14593

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


The symposium, that evening, might have degenerated into something like an orgy but for the masterful intervention of Denis who was not going to let Keith make a fool of himself. It took place in the most famous of all the caves of Nepenthe-Luisella's grotto-cavern dedicated, by common usage, to the worship of Venus and Bacchus.

There were two or three living rooms on the surface of the ground. Walking through the first of these you clambered down some slippery stairs into what was once a breathless subterranean vault hewn out of the soft and dry pumiceous rock and used, as was customary, for storing barrels and other paraphernalia. In the course of time, as more barrels accumulated, the grotto was excavated further and further into the entrails of the island. There seemed no reason why it should ever cease growing when suddenly, one day, the perspiring workmen were struck in the face by a cool blast of wind laden with marine moisture. They knew what this meant. They had encountered one of those mysterious and dangerous fissures that lead down to unknown depths, opening upon the world of sunshine often at the water's edge, four hundred feet below. It was deemed prudent to suspend excavations. These rents in the interior of the earth had a knack of enlarging themselves, without a word of warning, from cracks of a few inches to black gulfs several hundred feet across. The cavern ceased to grow. As a matter of fact, it turned out to be just large enough.

That current of air ventilating the grotto made the fortune of these orphan girls-Luisella and her three sisters. The barrels and other lumber once removed, the recess became a breezy night-tavern, its natural vaulting being first whitewashed and then adorned, by master-hand, with thrilling pictures of crimson fish afloat upon caerulean waves, and piles of bossy pumpkins, and birds of Paradise with streaming golden feathers, and goats at pasture among blue lilies, and horses prancing over emerald mountains, and trees laden with flowers and fruits such as no mortal had ever seen or tasted. It was an ideal place for a carousal.

They could cook, those girls. Their savoury stews and vegetable soups and FRITTURAS of every description were known far and wide. It was universally agreed that nobody could make a more appetizing mayonnaise sauce for cold fish and lobsters. No mayonnaise was quite like theirs; no, not quite. Its flavour lingered on the palate; it haunted your memory in distant lands, like the after-glow of some happy love-affair. Nice girls, too; well-mannered; not very difficult to caress, and never jealous of each other. "It's all in the family," they used to declare.

"Am I right, then, or am I wrong?" asked Mr. Keith, whose pomposity was melting away under successive bottles of his own wine, specially imported to grace the table.

The honest Vice-President of the Club, Mr. Richards, was pretty far gone, but could always be relied upon to say something opposite. That was due to his legal training. Once a thriving solicitor, he had been struck off the rolls in consequence of some stupid trustee business which turned out all wrong and thereafter driven along devious paths known only to himself: hence his residence on Nepenthe. He replied:

"That depends entirely, my dear Sir, upon what you postulated."

"The older I get," observed Mr. van Koppen, "the more I realize that everything depends upon what a man postulates. The rest is plain sailing."

"I never heard a truer remark," said Keith, "not even from you! One has only to posit a thing, and it's done. Don't you agree, Bishop? Here is what I would call a worn-out earthenware plate. It is not a plate unless I tell it to be a plate. You may call it anything you like-it can't answer back. But we need not pursue the argument. Speaking for myself, I am feeling as comfortable as a beetle in a rose."

The Vice-President remarked:

"We all know what it means when Mr. Keith becomes horticultural in his similes. It means the same thing as when I become legal. Gentlemen! I propose to grow legal within the next half-hour or so."

"You promised to tell me the history of your cannas," said Mr. Heard.

"You were going to tell it me too," answered Denis.

"I did. I was. And I will. But let me ask you this: have you ever heard of a teetotaler conspicuous for kindliness of heart, or intellectually distinguished in any walk of life? I should be glad to know his name. A sorry crew! Not because they drink water, but because the state of mind which makes them dread alcohol is unpropitious to the hatching of any generous idea. WHEN MEN HAVE WELL DRUNK. I like that phrase. WHEN MEN HAVE WELL DRUNK. I am inclined to think that the Aramaic text has not been tampered with at this point. What do you say, Heard?"

"Nothing is more improbable," replied the bishop. "And the water, you perceive, was changed into wine; not into cocoa or lemonade. That conveys, if I am not mistaken, rather a suggestive implication."

"I have been pursuing Seneca's letters. He was a cocoa-drinker, masquerading as an ancient. An objectionable hypocrite! I wish people would read Seneca instead of talking about him."

Van Koppen observed:

"What a man postulates is truer than what exists. I have grown grey in trying to make my fellow-creatures understand that realities are less convincing than make-believe."

"Given the proper atmosphere," said the bishop, laughing, "everything becomes inevitable. If you were wrong, Mr. van Koppen, where would our poets and novelists be?"

"Where are they?" queried the American.

"How shall that come out of a man," continued Mr. Heard, "which was never in him? How shall he generate a harmonious atmosphere if he be disharmonious himself? It is all a question of plausibility, of verisimi-simili-"

"I never heard a more profound remark, Koppen, no, nor a more subtle one; not even from you. Nor yet from you, Heard. And I can tell you something to the point. I was talking this afternoon with a gentleman about the stage. I said it made me said to see flesh-and-blood people pretending to be kings and queens. Because it cannot be done. No sensible person can bring himself to believe it. But when you watch some of these local marionette theatres the illusion is complete. Why is a poppy show more convincing than the COMEDIE FRANCAISE? Because it is still further removed from reality. There is so much make-belief that you cease to struggle. You succumb without an effort. You are quite disposed, you are positively anxious, to make concessions to the improbable. Once they are made-why, as you say, it is plain sailing."

"All life is a concession to the improbable," observed the bishop rather vaguely.

Mr. Richards remarked:

"These questions must be approached with an open mind. An open mind, gentlemen, is not necessarily an empty one."

"A fine distinction!"

"Very well. Mr. Keith proposes to abolish theatres. I second the motion. Nothing is easier. Let me draw up a memorial to the House of Lords. We will appeal to them on moral grounds. I know the proper language. WHEREAS BY THE GRACE OF GOD YOUR PETITIONERS HUMBLY PROTEST THAT THERE IS TOO MUCH KISSING ON THE STAGE-ah! Talking of kissing, here comes our friend Don Francesco. He s

hall put his name to the memorial and seal it with an oath. No Englishman can resist a Monsignor. And nothing like a solemn oath. People always think you mean it."

That amiable personage strode down the stairs in dignified fashion, greeting the guests with a sonorous:

"PAX VOBISCUM!"

He could not be induced to stay long, however. He had been perturbed all day on account of the Duchess who now threatened to join the Moravian Brotherhood; she was so annoyed about a little thing which had happened. He did not quite believe it, of course; but, like a well-trained priest, took nothing for granted and was prepared for every emergency where ladies are concerned.

"Just one glass!" said Keith.

"Let me drink to your health ere we part," added the bishop. "I am sorry to leave you. Our friendship will endure. We meet in September, during the vintage season. Keith has been talking to me. I am as wax in his hands. Your smile, Don Francesco, will follow me across the ocean. Just one glass!"

"Ah, well!" said the priest. "The next best thing to leading others astray is to be led astray oneself."

He gulped down a couple of tumblers and dutifully took his leave, turning round, as he reached the staircase, to make a playful gesture of benediction towards the assembled company.

"Don't leave your bottle half empty," Keith called after him, imploringly. "It looks untidy."

"And so unhappy," added the bishop. "Dear me! This is most singular. I seem to see two lamps instead of one. It must have been those apricots."

Keith interposed:

"Or perhaps you strained one of your eyes bathing. It has happened to me, occasionally. Darkness is the best remedy. It rests the optic nerve."

"Shall we take a turn or two outside?" asked Denis.

It was past midnight as the two climbed out of the cave into the night air. A cool north wind blew across the market-place. The bishop was filled with a sense-a clear-cut, all-convincing sense-of the screamingly funny insignificance of everything. Then he noticed the moon.

It dangled over the water, waning, sickly, moth-eaten, top-heavy, and altogether out of condition-as if it had been on duty for weeks on end. In other respects, too, its appearance was not quite normal. In fact, it soon took to behaving in the most extraordinary fashion. Sometimes there were two moons, and sometimes one. They seemed to merge together-to glide into each other, and then to separate again. Mr. Heard was vastly pleased and puzzled by the phenomenon-so pleased that he gave utterance to one of the longest speeches he had made since his arrival on Nepenthe. He said:

"I have seen many funny things here, Denis. But this is the funniest of all. The spectacle seems to have been providentially arranged, as a sort of BONNE BOUCHE, for my last evening on the island. Dear me. Now there are two again. And now they are behind each other once more. A kind of celestial hide and seek. Most interesting. I wish Keith could see it. Or that dear Count Caloveglia. He would be sure to say something polite…. The inconstant moon! I know, at last, what the poet meant by that expression, though the word inconstant strikes me as hardly forcible enough. The skittish moon, I should be inclined to call it. The skittish moon. The frivolous moon. The giddy moon. The quite-too-absurd moon…. There it goes again! Very curious. What can it be?… Why, this is the reverse of an eclipse, my boy. The disk is darkened during an eclipse. It disappears IN VACUO. In the present case it is brightened and rendered, so to speak, doubly apparent. What would you call the reverse of an eclipse, Denis? Anti-eclipse? That sounds rather barbaric to my ears. One should never mix Greek and Latin, if it can possibly be avoided. Well?"

"We must have a good look at this thing from your window, and then find out all about it."

"Oh, but I could not possibly take you from your friends! I know my way home perfectly well. You will not dream of accompanying me."

"Indeed I will. I walked with you to that house when you first arrived here, and helped you to unpack. Don't you remember? And now you must let me take you there on our last evening…."

By the time Denis returned to the grotto a more exuberant and incoherent tone had been generated among the guests. He was not pleased. He felt inclined to be stern. A number of reprobates from the Club had dropped in, and Keith, whom he meant to keep straight for one night at least, was saying silly things and giving himself away. So was the excellent Mr. Richards.

"This is a good island," observed that gentleman. "We discourse like sages and drink like swine. Peace with Honour!… How that old Jew took our English measure, eh? How he laughed in his sleeve at our infatuation for a phrase like that. Peace with Honour! The sort of claptrap that makes a man feel so jolly comfortable inside, so damned satisfied with everything like after a good deed. And that sentimental primrose business. Dizzy as flower-expert! What cared he for primroses? Votes and moneybags was what he was after. But he knew the British Public. And that accounts for the pious domestic button-hole. Who ever heard of a Jew telling the difference between a primrose and any other kind of rose? They're not such blasted fools."

"Excuse me," said Keith, rising from his seat in an afflatus of inspiration. "Excuse me. I know the difference. It is primarily a question of nutrition. Glucose! I am a great believer in glucose. Because, even if it could be proved that the monks of Palaiokastron stripped the vine of its leaves and thereby hastened the maturing of the grape without reducing its natural supply of sugar-"

"You don't shine," interrupted Denis, "when you talk like that."

"Because even if this could be proved, which I greatly doubt, yet nothing on earth will make me believe that glucose is otherwise than beneficial to vegetation. Because-"

"Do sit down, Keith. You are monopolizing the conversation."

"Because the glucose resides within that verdant foliage like truth in her well, like the oyster within its pearl. The monks of Palaiokastron-they got it straight from Noah. I am a great believer in glucose. Which is absurd. Because-"

"Oh, shut up! You are making a perfect exhibition of yourself. Can't you oblige me, for once in the way?"

Denis was growing seriously alarmed for the reputation of his friend. He had changed of late; he was beginning to know his own mind. He meant to put a stop to this humiliating scene. As the other, regardless of his pleadings, continued to babble dithyrambic nonsense concerning glucose and self-fertilization and artificial manures and inflorescence and Assyrian bas-reliefs and Stilton cheese, he suddenly gripped his arm and pulled him, with a crash, into his chair.

"Sit down, you double-distilled owl!"

This was the first virile achievement of his young life, and directed to a worthy end. For it was obvious to the meanest intelligence that Mr. Keith was considerably drunk. Too surprised to utter a word of protest, the orator paused in his declamation, beaming blandly at nobody in particular. Then he remarked, in quite a subdued tone of voice:

"We are all at the mercy of youth. Mr. Richards! Could you oblige me with a fairy-tale?"

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