The Folly: fourth arc

 


 

The guest is invited by urgent telegram to return to the Folly, as Miss Keltenham, celebrated author, specifically had wanted ghosts for her latest inspiration, and Roscoe refuses to cooperate. Simon seems absent (more to that story); further, having met him in life, Virginia can’t imagine he’s got the stuff, in death. She demands the guest give her the Legend of the Pale Knight, the famous haunting associated with false St. Crispin’s. This is long gone, while the guest’s research indicates there had been another, older chapel, at not quite the same spot. 

 


 

 

Virginia Keltenham
An Ordinary Signal Drop
Godfrey
St. Andrew’s Day
The Zone of Prophecy
The Spectre Knows
Sinister
Song of Trout
Where End Meets Beginning
Poison in the Marrow

 

 


 

The Legend of the Pale Knight 

The Folly

The Legend of the Pale Knight

Virginia Keltenham
(one)

 

‘Those deadly people. They’d like me a bit Elinor Glyn-ish

But then they want sentiment. But then, of course,

they don’t. They want some dismal comeuppance

for bad behaviour, a heroine like one of Lawrence’s

stultifying Magdalene figures. I suppose you can guess what

must lead up to all that.

Trout is with me. I’d ordered him to stay behind.

Sort of help you get these days.’

Pointed, this remark. Aimed at one standing nearby,

Heard to emit a priggish laugh

‘Roscoe…’ the guest clears his throat, and as at once she says,

‘I can’t hear a thing! Speak up!’

answers, ‘Virginia! Are you hearing me now?’

Footballers are chorusing, and the Ram’s Arms’ faulty service

Bloops and stutters

A voice breaks through to them, burbling like a dying man’s

Ventilator hose

Ask me anything

‘Leave,’ the guest tries.

Call that asking, do you? I may. I might.

 

‘Does it shock you a little, that I satirize my own

poor œuvre? But I mean to travesty yours—fair warning

That is, I’ve got to have it, your story of the pale knight.

Not to actively poach, my dear…but you’d said to me it is truly frightening.

I suppose,’ Virginia cups the receiver, ‘it’s all right if I insult Roscoe? Because

he’s not been a very public-spirited spectre.

As a matter of fact—dare I say?—silent as the you-know-what.

Trout, who rather inspires mischief, I’m afraid…even my darling Trout

has felt quite at peace, turning one of the cellars into a darkroom.’

‘Have a go,’ the guest shrugs, but feels given a nudge

The words a whisper echoed in his ear

 

 


 

The Legend of the Pale Knight

 

An Ordinary Signal Drop
(two)

 

It impressed me, acquainted me, the unspeakable

more normality than horror at a glance

shivering loose, like flakes of plated gilding

painted over with a garden scene

Shoes, parasol, a hand suspended

holding still its cup of tea

A man, crawling at the last, hurricane winds

Driving him onto knees, and stretching fingertips

at terrifying risk, bowed low and groping to the lopped edge

needing this spray of water in his face

the moon’s emerging, laying of its light

masked by clouds, then startlingly uncurtained

To believe it, that he saw it

 

Mr. Dunlow, my father’s ancient valet

was servant to a surgeon of Dundee

going out in any case, to lance a boil, or some such

thing, Dunlow not needed, but the gale’d come up strong again

that evening, that was how he told it, that he had

just gone out to see his master off

and eye the weather for himself

 

It was Mr. Roberts’s story Dunlow told

But had it at second-hand first-hand if you understand me

The feather-tip descends to shelter hope

For a moment the signal lingers in mid-air

Allez

The train has gone at seven-fourteen

 

 


 

The Legend of the Pale Knight

 

Godfrey
(three)

 

‘I don’t like to be a bore…’

That, she says, is the wrong way to begin a tale

You’ll have me fearing the worst

Not either in the proper sense

‘Well…because people have tended, quite literally, to wander off.’

You get invited to dinners, my dear, and you have no dinner conversation.

You plunge in with your Subject.

And, you know, rumour has got out. ‘Never in his presence

breathe the name of bloody St. Crispin’s.’

 

Have a glance at the sporting news, next time

Memorize one or two results

‘Noticed Madame’s Nightshirt came tenth’

Pigeons or horses, makes no odds

Answer every gambit, ‘Is that right?’

 

Roscoe, who has climbed down to participate

Is silenced nonetheless

In fact, Virginia says, no one in our circle has heard you tell it.

So what do they know? I shall be the first.

I pledge myself rooted to the spot.

 

Godfrey the Hermit…though probably he was not a hermit,

that was a bit of mediæval yarn-spinning, of which they did a

great deal, the early missionaries being wily in their way…

understood well that a mystique, a pretence the teachings

were not for everyone, a touch of the nobleman’s high-handedness

to which the peasantry were quite used—

Please

Forgive me. Godfrey, I mean to say,

writing in his poor Latin, that he seemed partly

to have invented ad hoc

I’m not laughing

No…ahem…he had an excellent ear for gossip. His anecdotes,

always to encourage the belief in miracles, are difficult to place

historically

 

 


 

The Legend of the Pale Knight

 

St. Andrew’s Day
(four)

 

She’d been in infirmary with a chest cold by account of the matron

It could be worse

She is very old

These indispositions take the old ones, sudden

But come anyway, Mrs. Devilbiss’ll be tickled

If she’s feeling up to it

He fears, this is all…ill-advised, his proof, by the porter

Tut-tutted aside

Mrs. Winstanley calls greeting from her desk

And adds: ‘I’ll come along. You’ll stay for elevenses? I confess—’

She confesses her eagerness to hear all this.

‘They’ve every one got a story, you know. Just takes teasing out.’

 

Do you know that I was born in 1847? So, then…I was rising fourteen.

It was November, 1860, I well recall…St. Andrew’s Day, it was.

My old nurse did put store by such

When there’d be a moon, we girls’d go out for a rendezvous.

Long after curfew, we would. I’d been kept abed with a

spotty fever, but I tiptoed down the hall. And so I lagged

behind my sister…and the hoarfrost

made the meadow bright as daylight. It was a farm pond,

Mr. Evans’s, built up, like…you had to climb getting to the shed

He was a queer sight. For that, my heart never skipped a beat

I’d thought at first the boys were larking…he wore a sort of thing

 

Old Mrs. Devilbiss makes a gesture, her hand bent to a fixed angle

Passes roughly over her own face

A sort of military helmet, the guest says

Ay, I picture it so

And he raised it

… and there inside was only a great mouth

All black and moaning

Like the adit of a mine, you know

 

 


 

The Legend of the Pale Knight

 

The Zone of Prophecy
(five)

 

The sexton of St. Crispin’s, the late Mr. Michelwhyte

I doubt you’d know of him…which is rather the point, the familiar one

being far nearer Bath than Taunton, liked telling

(though half the time undoubtedly pulling my leg)

of that apparition dubbed the Pale Knight

By legend alleged to warn of doom impending

Now, there are three contrary indications

worth discussing…

The guest trails a bit and peers with some anxiety

over his teacup’s rim

My dear, I am a woman of my word, Virginia nudges

Bore ahead, my love (but this is Roscoe, mimicking)

Well, first, these mediæval signs and wonders

Were used politically to cow one’s enemies

You see a deal of the sort of thing in Shakespeare’s histories

Battle’s outcome heralded by the usual cocks and comets

Thus these accounts of Godfrey’s might have been utter fabulation

Set down in writing, by one who could, to please his patron

His name was, the guest adds aside, unlikely to have been Godfrey

That, merely as the local tongue had struck the Norman ear…

Ahem…no doubt, and then to make things muddier

The Knight himself acquired Godfrey’s name—

In the manner of a Frankenstein

Is that right? Now you amaze me

And so we had—the guest ticks off fingers…one, two, one and a half?

…the possibility of romance only

Then there are those matters of investigation…

 

And I’m sorry to say, we must now sail into the doldrums of scholarship. I shall have to explain a bit about what we seekers call the Zone of Prophecy. Let us say that a thing might happen on any given day within an ordinary year. Its chance of doing so would be one in three hundred sixty-five. But you will see that, should we allow its occurring within any quarter-year, this must rise (though in paradoxical fashion) to something near one in ninety. And so, with fair confidence I may claim to foresee a devastating earthquake, and am likely enough to be right…if I mean only somewhere on earth, sometime this year. Do I predict autumn, my prospect of looking prescient remains fair. Sheltering under the umbrella of otherworldly fogginess (the guest here does a creditable pantomime of squinting into a crystal ball), I may broaden the period to any time between late summer and early winter.

Suppose I say the catastrophe will take place on December nineteenth, and be centred upon the Isle of Man. Then, of course, it either does or, far more probably, does not. Should I suggest a robbery of the Irish Mail, now, and should this come true, you reasonably would presume my knowledge more that of confederate than clairvoyant. Because one may cause a crime, but one may not cause an earthquake…

 

 


 

The Legend of the Pale Knight

 

The Spectre Knows
(six)

 

‘Then further,’ says the guest, ‘we are not talking about intuition. If a railwayman observes that passengers are in the habit of jumping from the cars before the train comes to a halt, he will say, ‘There you have the makings of an accident’, and may well be proved right. We do not call that prophecy.’

 

Michelwhyte, of ninety-nine years

Seventy and more visiting old stores

of books, his favourite enviable pastime

Dust, and tiny beads of sweat…of fingertips, of saints

Of leaves’ tender gilding none else had managed to unstick

Michelwhyte, a patient wight, a slowly mummifying servant

of Christ, a man who keeps his watches, a pale knight

gliding edges of evening-hours smiles and animated eyes

Kind-hearted, pontificating Michelwhyte

The very man—astonishing!

Old Michelwhyte, living, truly? You don’t say…

‘Ay, ’tis he.’

A near century of mounting cataclysm, and the spectre knows

It Is All One

the doom of man, propagating like a cloud

1909

The ancient sexton unearthed again by a junior reporter

sent in search of local colour

 

‘Ere the plague arrived in England, Godfrey had been seen

Ten villages along the coast been left without a living soul

And gales blowing down their walls

And bones of dead men lying on their beds

Full-clothed and lying on their beds.’

 

It is unfortunately true, that one of the easiest mistakes of memory is in the ordering of events. Let me digress.

 

Oh, I hope you’ll take it in stages, Roscoe says. Don’t want to tax yourself, learning a new skill.

 

Yes. So…it was in 1912 that we lost the Titanic. I’d mentioned Michelwhyte’s spellbinding reminiscences, printed in the Advertiser, on this occasion, three years earlier. The ‘echo period’, as we call it, generally will proceed from the source for three to five years.

The old sexton’s manifestations were fairly regular. Michelwhyte did plenty of unintended mischief…every decade or so, out with a fresh recounting. He had, by attrition, got possession of the story…all rival sources dying away, while Michelwhyte lived on.

You see, I’d been confident the Pale Knight was fabrication, and bearing all the signs of it. My aim was disproof, rather than proof. And so I’d set about reviewing articles, letters…interviewing those mentioned by name; or, in the case of the letters, locating them by a sort of deductive process—

One might sign himself: ‘A Hobbyist’, for example, or ‘Old Fusilier’… Most times an appeal to the landlord—of any public house near the given address—would readily identify the writer.

Now, invariably (and many of the stories, due to the passage of time, must come at second-hand), the claim was that someone else had seen the apparition. This sort of lead, you won’t be surprised to learn, would go cold at once. However, I had talked—it was five years ago—to a David Butcherson, aged forty-five then, twenty-eight at the time of his claim…

 

And did it speak?

Head scratch. Wary smile. I can’t remember that.

And how do you picture yourself…? How many feet distant, between yourself and Godfrey… Where would you place the creature on the compass, facing north, facing south…?

 

Well, I felt right off he hadn’t got a picture. He had imagined the needed bits, of the knight’s demeanour and accoutrement, to facilitate the telling of his yarn…and the reporter hadn’t cared enough to mind. Only a bit of column-filler, item of local interest.

But, I am an investigator. The gear Butcherson described was such as you might see in a pageant or a play; and if the Pale Knight were a true phenomenon, he would not have appeared as anything like a knight…not, that is, habilimented in the Arthurian manner. By rights, the helmet either would resemble a museum piece from the late Roman period, or be a thing never seen—yet nevertheless consistent in detail from account to account.

Then again, it is not really a social faux pas to have seen a ghost…more a feather in the cap, in a number of circles.

 

You mean to say, by rights he’d have gone at once, to tell a friend.

Or accuse a friend…

Of taking the piss.

The guest blushes before Virginia.

Phrase you were looking for. No need to thank me, Roscoe says.

 

 


 

The Legend of the Pale Knight

 

Sinister
(seven)

 

Reputation, for those into whose veins,

Embarrassment taps easily and oft,

Be-crimsoning the cheek, that turns aside in haste;

And cutting cruelly like a two-edged sword—

Though by a most humble squire raised

 

What’s all this? Roscoe demands, and mutters aside: Have to say orft, then, if you’re rhyming it with sword.

 

Oh, I don’t know, says the guest, puzzled…vaguely what I had in mind to say, rather surprising it should come out that way…

 

The Reverend Sir Mortimer Finchley-Stroethers, vicar and ‘amateur scribbler’, once strongly pitched (‘to Salisbury: no ear whatever’), by his dear Lady Marchpane, of the Shropshire Marchpanes (‘so kind as to postscript a line from “Icarus”, in sending to the Queen her birthday wishes’), for appointment to the post of poet laureate (‘This was just at the time of the Boer War…other chap snaffled it’), speaks further:

 

You’d all gone quiet. It is my nature to lend a hand. To all and any of county historians, such as have dedicated their scholarship to the pursuit of hidden Truths, the tale I have to tell—one in which both professional jealousy and dastardly vengeance figure in the liveliest respects—will be of great interest…

 

Yes…another time.

However, the guest goes on, the point is a valid one. After I’d been at it—the discreet advertisements and the personal interviews—for a number of years, it became fairly well known I was searching for legends of the Pale Knight. I’d been leery of being sought out…he that pays the piper calls the tune, as they say. Yet in a handful of instances, the sketch by Nigel Devilbiss of his aunt’s encounter being one, a…

He tilts a hand to the left, to the right, and says, hesitant about it: ‘Sinister, I think, is the word I may fairly use. A sinister consistency asserted itself. The “sort of thing”, you recall, she’d described him wearing. Of course, it was beyond her to name it. A battle-helmet, of very ancient design. Why, I wondered, should the true sightings feel so fictitious, and the false sightings so true?’

 

 


 

The Legend of the Pale Knight

 

Song of Trout
(eight)

 

There is no harm in others underestimating one’s fortitude

Matthew Piers Trout has reason to be sure of it

Sure as he’d known, from school days, loneliness

mutate into priestly hauteur

Mysteries performed behind the darkroom door

Life given purpose, on discovery of the art

He’d known as well, at the first pass—thirteen when

the war ended—he would not be called

But yet the day would come

 

The authoress had wanted a shorthand-typist.

‘You haven’t the face of a man with a hobby. I ought to hire Lady Newtonmore’s niece. Do you know how many years I scrounged for a publisher? The little upstart tells me she’ll look on it as an apprenticeship. Well, with the aristocracy, it is never a wise thing to burn one’s bridges. But, young Trout, I believe I’ll take you. And then,’ she’d said, Miss Keltenham…after he’d barely got used to her trend of thought, ‘you’ll take me!’

He had. She had come from the hairdresser without her specs, another woman altogether. After that, got testy, when he’d suggested, ‘Here you are putting an adverb between had and been. You do that rather often. Shall I correct them all?’

‘I’ll tell you what. Go down and speak to MacCreasey. He’s brought dull papers to read. A treat for you, lad.’

 

Months afterwards, going to Colonel Llewellyn’s safety talk, Trout, of all members of his camera club, bore about with him among ordinary shutterbugs, a certain celebrity, for having been hauled up by the collar into possession of this glamourous title…publicity agent.

‘Keltenham. Wife reads her. Bit of a humourist. Now there’s a danger worth putting a stop to, this joking habit. Gives comfort to the enemy.’

He hadn’t explained.

But, of course, the enemy.

This brief talk with the military man had chuffed Trout to pieces. And on that note of pride, he’d felt braced to a British sense of duty, stopping just shy of rejoicing…that the Germans seemed bent on re-arming.

They had all been asked to give their names.

He’d quivered in terror for a week…he’d gone wrong, somehow, and would not be summoned. The others would shift eyes at one another, suck in laughter.

‘No, you’ll not speak to Llewellyn again. He’s not in it,’ Trout had been informed. The major had given him a canister of film.

 

So

These who gather at the Folly

The urbane host, the Oxonian guest—

That neighbour, Inskip…certainly a Scot

Farming in Somerset

Or like Virginia, those to whom they let the place

All incomers. Such are the bustling ways

Of the present century

And Trout supposes whether or no

This may mean much

It means something

 

It is the dire burden of the charge

His shoulders now must manage bearing

‘When we are infiltrated, the tunnel will be made

By a nosing in, a gradual wearing

It won’t seem odd to you when you’ve got used

To the agitation, the comings and goings

You imagine it’s only in the Big Smoke

That people pass by foreigners on the street

Preoccupied, indifferent, out-of-mind

In contrast to the countryside, the little towns

Where famously nothing escapes the public eye…

But you forget what the classes are

How easily one nods at eccentricities

Among the gentry.’

The major thinks it’s not the rank and file

‘Your touring countess is the greater menace.’

 

 


 

The Legend of the Pale Knight

 

Where End Meets Beginning
(nine)

 

Now, he allows for those romantic fancies

That titillate the female set

Virginia, Trout views with an oblige suited

To a scientific man’s noblesse

Trout, who knows his shutter speeds

And chemical baths—and grades of films

Appropriate for this and that

Disbelieves strongly in this poltergeist

This Roscoe, meant to be the late Bevington

Although…sieving minutiae through his grey cells

He treads a path shrouded by earthly cloud

And asks himself

Would a voice recorded on magnetic tape

Limit one, or rather enhance the effect…?

Yes, muck about with ordinary expectations

As the major has it, and as Trout, so bolstered being thus

Confided to

Gulps down like a khaki pabulum

The enemy has got you, then

They’ll have you doubting what you know is true

 

Someone has popped a flash bulb

He thinks the familiar thing

Only that searing radiance

By rights, by now would end

A metal chill drives through him like a sword

Trout, on his knees, grapples for the weight

Hung round his neck

This, this, Britannia whispers…

Fail not! Tis your moment of glory, lad

 

 


 

The Legend of the Pale Knight

 

Poison in the Marrow
(ten)

 

Now Trout had had an aunt

A woman inculcated with a fair education

Of course, one mustn’t laugh

No. There, but for the grace of…

She’d spoken of burning one’s Rubicons behind one

He feels, coming to himself, the point is apt

A cruel temptation seems fingering his nape

He means to shrug it off

This mongrel thought

Jettisoning all of fealty that an oath

Should bind one

To…

 

The night is somewhat balmy

Soft Spring explodes in loamy odours

Advance notice of relentless greening

Of which the season, innocent

As a kitten with a mouse

Insists upon, insists upon

Chill and heat mix on the skin of a bead

Dew plays alike on Trout’s fevered brow

The vision sprouts anew

 

The creature had no words to tell

Spoke, the Pale Knight, in conjured sights

An atom draws unto itself an ocean

Plummets to the sky in pillar of volcanic flame

Rains over earth an unseeable rain

That lodges a slow poison in the marrow

The seed has taken root

 

But still…and surely…by some means

The enemy has wrought these things

He ought to take the spool of film

And seal it tight

Not look to learn what workings of

what infernal device

He has captured there

That, by rights, is the major’s affair

And yet Trout knows he’ll not sit idle

Shirking mission in the belly of the whale

Through the night

He trials martyrdom…hangs himself and scans

The mob for sympathetic eyes

He can’t find hers

 

Oh mother mother make my bed

Oh make it soft and narrow

 

 


 

The story begins: Calmacott’s BrotherThe Legend of the Pale Knight

Next: The German Spy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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