Chapter 91

Few jewels in my collection of freaks are more precious than Cecil Maitland. From his birth, he aroused the liveliest hopes among students of entomology; for his father, a distinguished Anglican controversialist, followed Newman and Manning into apostasy. His projects for attaining the papacy were, however, thwarted by the unscrupulous action of a charming lady, who insisted upon dragging him from the very foot of the altar to a rival sacrament pedlar, who promptly conjoined them in wedlock at the regular rates. This escapade did not escape the notice of the Vatican. The Pope was surprised into the exclamation “Tut”, or its Latin equivalent. He scratched his head and muttered, “Martin Luther!” After a moment's reflection he dispatched his chamberlain for bell, book and candle; and proceeded to the magical operation against this occasion made and provided. As in the case of the Jackdraw of Rheims, the effect of the curse was to ruffle the feathers of the audacious follower after the false god Hymen. A touch of rheumatism brought matters to a climax. He rang up Harrods and ordered a supply of sackcloth and ashes. Receiving, like Job, visits of condolence from various righteous friends he besought them to intercede with the Almighty on his behalf; and as they numbered not a few influential people, with strings on the College of Cardinals, the Pope was eventually persuaded to “silence that dreadful bell”, return the book to its shelf and snuff the comminatory candle. The Rev. Mr Maitland was restored to the bosom of the Harlot of the Seven Hills; though not to the priesthood; and on the strict condition that for the future he should regard his wife as tabu. Things thus satisfactorily settled, she brought forth a man child and called his name Cecil James Alexander, rejecting with contumacy the suggested alternative Caoutchouc. He grew in stature and in favour of God and man, so far as research had hitherto been able to determine. But he was subject to amiable delusions, one of which took the sinister shape of Cacoethes Scribendi. In the Great War he joined the army and became a real “capting”. Advised of this fact, the Germans wisely refrained from entering Edinburgh. His next step was to become a dipsomaniac and lose his teeth. During this period he suffered from hydrophobia and did not wash for eighteen months. This romantic situation enflamed the virgin heart of a large, white, red-haired maggot named Mary Butts, or rather Rodker.

In the previous spasm she had rushed to the registrar the most nauseating colopter1) that ever came under my microscope. It was a Whitechapel Jew {878} who proclaimed himself a poet on the strength of a few ungrammatical and incoherent ramblings, strung together and chopped at irregular intervals into lines. He used to hang about studios in the hope of cadging cigarettes and drinks. He even got into mine on one occasion, owing to a defect in the draught excluder. Luckily the plumbing was perfect. One tug on the chain, a gush and a squeal, and I saw him no more. But somehow he squirmed out of the sewers and, as I said, obtained the official position, louse pediculosis, with Mary Butts. She washed him and dressed him, which naturally led to disenchantment, and Cecil reigned in his stead.

In 1922, they were paying the price of their outrage on morality. They were both in very bad health and very hard-pressed for money. One of their favourite amusements was playing at Magick. Idle and mentally muddled, they were attracted by all subjects which seemed to require no orderly thought or steady work. Nothing is easier than to pick up a few awe-inspiring terms and stir them into soup. It is the only way to impress those even more ignorant. They therefore came to me. With my invariable optimism, I picked out all the promising points and overlooked the faults, I promised myself that I could easily correct them. Their wretchedness kindled my pity and I invited them to spend their summer in the abbey at Cefalu. I really believed that a month or two of simple life, free from temptations and distractions, with the quiet discipline of our regulations, might put them on the right road.

They arrived.

The very next day I got the shock of my life. I must mention first that, some time earlier, Maitland had had some sort of job mining or planting in the East. On his journey out, his ship was standing off Colombo pending quarantine inspection. He was sitting on the rail talking to a girl. Suddenly he fell backwards and was pulled into a boat by Singhalese pedlars who had no consideration for the perfectly justifiable feelings of the local sharks, or any philosophical care for the welfare of humanity.

The told this story to excuse his aversion to water. It was, however, of vital important to his health that he should learn to swim. We went down to the Caldara alone, took off our clothes and started round the rocks. I showed him how to proceed without the slightest need of swimming, by letting the water take most of his weight, and using his hands to hang on to the large convenient knobs of rock which abound everywhere. He showed the most abject fear, but I supposed that a few minutes would give him confidence. On the contrary his terror increased and I had infinite trouble to get him to come even a couple of hundred yards. We reached the breaking point. He found a ledge, scrambled ashore and shivered. I gave up and swam back. I dressed and smoked. No sign of Captain Webb. I climbed to the top of the cliff, where I could see the whole edge. There he was like a cat on hot {879} bricks, with all due apologies to the feline race. He had chosen to try to find an overland route, stark naked on sharp rough rocks — and there really wasn't a way. He reached, at last, a cave, which possessed a fairly broad opening above water, so that I could throw him his sandals. He had merely to walk home on a broad flat shelf which would not have asked him to wade more than waist high. But he insisted on the most excoriating and dangerous scramble across slimy crags. An hour or so later, he finally got to his clothes. The unfortunate wretch was bleeding all over. We then walked home and he took occasion to thank me for the most unpleasant afternoon he had ever spent in his life. Even then I took the remark lightly. I could not seriously believe that he had been really in torture. It is a fixed idea in my mind that any Englishman of good blood enjoys an adventure, the rougher the better. But the spirit was not in him. Of course, I know that his father's psychology amply accounts for this abject attitude. In him the exhaustion of the stock had reached its climax. I learned later that he had already attempted suicide. He had tried to shoot himself in the heart with a revolver. One would imagine that it would have been safe to bet on his doing some damage. But no! His pistol was spiritually his twin. The bullet thought that it might hurt itself if it happened to hit a bone, so it skipped nimbly round his ribs and sought repose from the tribulations of existence in a comfortable cushion.

I soon discovered the root of his rottenness. After all, there must be a star somewhere there behind that bank of trembling fob. I worked with a will to save him. And one of the most pathetic incidents in my memory is that he came to me one morning with tears on the threshold of his eyes, and said in a quivering tenor, “I want to live!”, grasped my hand, fell on his knees and broke out sobbing. I felt that I had won the fight. The root of his weakness was that the will-to-live was absent.

From that moment he began to mend. Of course, all sorts of suppressed perversities externalized, and had to be analysed and destroyed. But I had great hopes of him when he left the abbey. Alas! it is easy to cure evil whose source is error; enlightenment restores righteousness. The misdirected energy returns to its proper course. But weakness is usually incurable; even the most hopeful cases require the discipline of years to establish habits whose inertia will protect the will from interference.

In the case of Maitland, the moment he showed the wish to become independent, the vanity of Mary Butts was wounded and her jealousy inflamed. She might have won the love of a first-rate man, but she preferred to dull the anguish of the consciousness that she was a weakling, as she admitted, by keeping in abject dependence upon her a man on whom she could look down. She accordingly did all she could to push him back into the mire of misery and self-contempt; and of course, no sooner was my {880} influence removed, than he sipped back into the stinking slime from which I had tried to rescue him.

Less than a year later, I heard that he swallowed a bottle of poison — not even a decent poison, such as a self-respecting suicide might be expected to use. I forget the precise ingredients. I think it was some sort of disinfectant, such as is sold without restriction because legislatures had failed to imagine anyone asinine or abject enough to make it a beverage. The luck still held. I don't know whether it disinfected him, but it certainly made him as sick as a sewer. He pulled through and I am only sorry not to be able to say, in the present edition, what happened next.

I cannot be serious and yet I am honestly sad beyond expression whenever the man comes up in my mind. His character was charming as few other men I ever met. His talent for writing, though limited by his moral weakness to trivialities, possessed many admirable qualities. His expression was simple and effective, and his fascination undeniable. It is hard to have to think of him as fit only for the garbage man. And yet if indeed it were possible to build him up sufficiently to make him of positive value, one would have to ask oneself whether the most optimistic estimate of success would not have to be weighed against the cost in patience and perseverance and found wanting.

The great value of such men as Maitland and Neuburg to me has been to strengthen my conviction that in the absence of will power, the most complete collection of virtues and talents is wholly worthless. Combine in one man the strength of Hercules, the beauty of Apollo, the grace of Antinos, the wisdom of Athena, the intelligence of Hermes, and every other gift of every other god, unless the anatomist is careful to supply a spine to support the structure, you will have a mollusc and not a man. You must have a fulcrum, not only to move the world, but to move a feather.

Besides our regular members we had a short visit from the two sisters of Cypris, Mimi — her twin — and Helen, nearly twenty years her senior.

Mimi was delighted. She yearned intensely to throw in her lot with us for life and yet she was inhibited by subconscious fear. The chains from civilization clanked on her ankles and wrists. She stayed with us for a fortnight and then went back to her work with the Red Cross in the devastated districts round Soissons. But the gods had their rod in the pickle for her.

I must explain that members of the abbey bore certain distinguishing marks. The official costume for those not entitled to the special robes of the A∴ A∴ was a vestment of bright blue hanging from neck to ankle with sleeves widening from shoulder to waist so that on extending the arms horizontally from the body it suggested the letter Tau. It was lined with scarlet and provided with a hood. When desired the dress was completed by a golden girdle. In addition the male members shaved the head with the exception of a single lock in the center of the forehead. The women wore {881} bobbed hair dyed red or yellow with henna. In these customs were symbolized certain spiritual or magical affirmations. The aureole of the women was in honour of our father the sun, and the upstanding lock of hair worn by the men a token of worship to his viceregent in the microcosm.

One afternoon the women were retouching their hair with henna, and Mimi took it into her head to tint her own tresses slightly with the same paste. The change was barely perceptible to any sane eye, but the moment she showed up at Soissons the horrible hags in authority pounced on the child, overwhelmed her with outrageous insults and cast her forth from their chaste company. It was an abominable abuse of power, no less than a foul-minded frenzy and a sadistic injustice. I wrote congratulating her on having achieved such a drastic demonstration of the truth of what we had told her about such people, and reminded her that she would always be welcome in the abbey.

But now a strange obsession assailed her. During her visit I had been even more absorbed in my work than usual and had hardly exchanged a dozen words with her. I had not urged her to undertake the Great Work. On the contrary I had been specially careful to maintain an attitude of simple friendliness. Yet she found herself the prey of a mingled fear and fascination. I was constantly present in her mind. She desired passionately to live in the shadow of my personality, yet at the same time was filled with panic fear of what seemed to her a surrender of her soul. The obsession grew to insane intensity. She felt that she was not safe in France. She must escape to the ends of the earth. She would hide herself in America. The poor child never guessed that she was trying to elude herself. However, she was carried away by her fears and fled to the States, where she paid the penalty of her panic. Fate has smitten again and again, and I hope that suffering will teach her what intelligence failed to impart. I shall be very surprised if sooner or later, she does not find her true will. For her only foes are ignorance and fear. Her heart is whole and honest.

With Helen the case was very different. I had met her in Paris early in '21, taken her to lunch at Lavenue's several times, and introduced her to some of my friends. I saw in the first few minutes that her life was one long pang. She had nothing to look back upon with pleasure or any hope for the future. Her face told the tale. The skin was dry, wrinkled and jaundiced; the thin lips were compressed with constant bitterness. Her intelligence was sufficient to tell her what was wrong. She had never known freedom. She had been robbed of her soul so that her masters might have a machine they could trust not to play any trick. The steam roller of social injustice had flattened her. Every drop of her blood had been drained by sterile servitude to soulless wealth. Yet she would not accept the way of escape that we offered so freely. Her suffering was intensified by the sight of the carefree happiness which {882} she found in the abbey. At the time of her visit, we happened to be particularly short of funds, and it enraged her to see that poverty was powerless to destroy our happiness or drag love from his throne in our hearts. Why couldn't we quarrel and scold like the people she was accustomed to? Envy gnawed at her liver and black bile oozed from the wounds. She began to hate us with insane intensity and the fiend fattened on the fact that her malice was impotent to make us unkind to her.

However, she succeeded at least in making herself impossible. She started a campaign of venomous falsehoods, which she knew to be such. The Ape and I had planned to go to England before she arrived, but by a series of accidents we were obliged to postpone the journey. However, in view of our plans we had given up the second house, so that when she began to try to corrupt the children I was obliged to interfere. I gave her the choice between retracting some of the more malignant lies, in which I had caught her out, or pursuing her career of crime in some more favourable environment within fifteen minutes. She had no defence. The witnesses were unanimous. Her denials and evasions were nailed to the counter with a single smack the instant they were out of her mouth. So out she went, and we gave a great gasp of relief. Yet still I felt sorry. Even such cold malignity as hers only confirmed me in compassion. In other circumstances she might have developed into a human being. My action surprised her completely. I had seemed so easy going and unobservant, so uniformly considerate and kind. When that lazy big lion suddenly leapt from his lair, she suffered the shock of her life. “I thought there might be something of the sort,” she said, startled out of prudence, “but I didn't think it would come for a long while.” She had hoped to do irreparable damage before being found out, and now she learnt, as so many before her and since, that the big lion sleeps with one eye open. Baffled and broken, her only idea was revenge. She did an amazing thing. She went to some consul in Palermo and swore to a long list of lies. She thought she could make trouble for us, though even after racking her brains for slanders she could only think of one thing which might bring us into conflict with the law. It was an act of unspeakable vileness. Success could only mean that her sister would be utterly ruined, torn from her home and her children, and either put in prison or thrown upon the world penniless in a foreign country without resources of any kind. Having shot the poisoned arrow, she pursued the Parthian policy of putting as many thousand miles as possible between herself and her victims. Before we found out what she had done she must be safe from pursuit. It was no part of her scheme to have to confront us and be cross-examined.

Of course the whole thing fizzled out. On the one alleged breach of the law, we were raided by the Cefalu police, of course without warning. They did their duty, while, of course, well aware that they had been sent to look for a {883} mare's nest. They behaved with charming courtesy and withdrew with many apologies for their action. We have heard from time to time of Helen. She is back on the treadmill, lonely and loveless, wearily and miserably dragging her despair through life — to call it life — down to death. Should these words come under her notice, let me assure her that we bear no ill-will, that she will always be welcome when she learns her lesson: that love is the only principle which makes life tolerable.

I gladly leave this wretched episode. The Ape and I left Cefalu for Paris early in February and took up, as usual, our abode with our friends Monsieur and Madame Bourcier, 50 rue Vavin, a few doors below the Boulevard Montparnasse near the Rotonde. I cannot let pass this occasion of expressing my affection and gratitude which these good folks have won. Their hotel has been my headquarters in Paris for over fifteen years and from the very beginning they treated me more like a son than a stranger. When people talk against the French and complain of the difficulty of getting on with them, I smile only a little at their stupidity, and all the rest at the memory of the kindness which I have received from the Bourciers.

Nor is the case unique. I confess that now and again, I have met French people without real politeness or real good feeling. I will add that the wealthy and alleged aristocratic classes are sprinkled much too thinly with individuals for whom I have any use. I find them selfish and boring. The first is the cause of the second, for the secret is that they lack faith in life; seeking self they have found an inane nullity, and being bored with themselves they naturally bore other people. But French artists, the professional classes and the much abused bourgeois are almost always delightful. What's more, you can trust them to do you a good turn when opportunity occurs. As to the peasant in the provinces, I find La Terre very one-sided. No doubt thrift often becomes avarice and meanness, and contact with the soil a hardening and dehumanizing influence. But if you know how to take them the right way, you will find them a pretty good sort.

I have a theory that English people find the French unsympathetic for one fundamental reason. Our neighbours and allies, from the President to the most primitive toiler, possess one quality which I have analysed at length elsewhere. They insist on refusing to fool themselves. They see no sense in pretending things are pretty when they are not. They think it stupid to dope themselves and an insult to the intelligence of others to kiss the blarney stone. The English mind is accordingly shocked. It is so fixed in the point of politeness to refuse reality.

For the first time in my life, Paris disappointed me. All the old enchantments had somehow vanished. I felt that my work lay elsewhere. London called to me. It was quite unreasonable. I had no motive for going. I had no means to go. Uneasy and undecided I got through the days as best I could. {884}

I decided to seek a solitude favourable for concentration at Hardelot, near Boulogne, in a delightful old inn where I had stayed before. The Ape of Thoth was in London. I wired her to meet me at Boulogne. So far there was no hitch in the proceedings. She met me at the train.


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WEH Note: Id est: beetle; insect, louse, crawling thing, vermin.


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