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MALVINA OF BRITTANY
MALVINA OF BRITTANY. The Preface. I. The Story. II. How it came about. III. How cousin Christopher became mixed up with it. IV. How it was kept from Mrs. Arlington. V. How it was told to Mrs. Marigold. VI. And how it was finished too soon. The Prologue. THE STREET OF THE BLANK WALL. HIS EVENING OUT. THE LESSON. SYLVIA OF THE LETTERS. THE FAWN GLOVES.
MALVINA OF BRITTANY.
The Doctor never did believe this story, but claims for it that, to a great extent, it has altered his whole outlook on life.
"Of course, what actually happened--what took place under my own nose," continued the Doctor, "I do not dispute. And then there is the case of Mrs. Marigold. That was unfortunate, I admit, and still is, especially for Marigold. But, standing by itself, it proves nothing. These fluffy, giggling women--as often as not it is a mere shell that they shed with their first youth--one never knows what is underneath. With regard to the others, the whole thing rests upon a simple scientific basis. The idea was 'in the air,' as we say--a passing brain-wave. And when it had worked itself out there was an end of it. As for all this Jack-and-the-Beanstalk tomfoolery--"
There came from the darkening uplands the sound of a lost soul. It rose and fell and died away.
"Blowing stones," explained the Doctor, stopping to refill his pipe. "One finds them in these parts. Hollowed out during the glacial period. Always just about twilight that one hears it. Rush of air caused by sudden sinking of the temperature. That's how all these sort of ideas get started."
The Doctor, having lit his pipe, resumed his stride.
"I don't say," continued the Doctor, "that it would have happened without her coming. Undoubtedly it was she who supplied the necessary psychic conditions. There was that about her--a sort of atmosphere. That quaint archaic French of hers--King Arthur and the round table and Merlin; it seemed to recreate it all. An artful minx, that is the only explanation. But while she was looking at you, out of that curious aloofness of hers--"
The Doctor left the sentence uncompleted.
"As for old Littlecherry," the Doctor began again quite suddenly, "that's his speciality--folklore, occultism, all that flummery. If you knocked at his door with the original Sleeping Beauty on your arm he'd only fuss round her with cushions and hope that she'd had a good night. Found a seed once--chipped it out of an old fossil, and grew it in a pot in his study. About the most dilapidated weed you ever saw. Talked about it as if he had re-discovered the Elixir of Life. Even if he didn't say anything in actually so many words, there was the way he went about. That of itself was enough to have started the whole thing, to say nothing of that loony old Irish housekeeper of his, with her head stuffed full of elves and banshees and the Lord knows what."
Again the Doctor lapsed into silence. One by one the lights of the village peeped upward out of the depths. A long, low line of light, creeping like some luminous dragon across the horizon, showed the track of the Great Western express moving stealthily towards Swindon.
"It was altogether out of the common," continued the Doctor, "quite out of the common, the whole thing. But if you are going to accept old Littlecherry's explanation of it--"
The Doctor struck his foot against a long grey stone, half hidden in the grass, and only just saved himself from falling.
"Remains of some old cromlech," explained the Doctor. "Somewhere about here, if we were to dig down, we should find a withered bundle of bones crouching over the dust of a prehistoric luncheon-basket. Interesting neighbourhood!"
The descent was rough. The Doctor did not talk again until we had reached the outskirts of the village.
"I wonder what's become of them?" mused the Doctor. "A rum go, the whole thing. I should like to have got to the bottom of it."
We had reached the Doctor's gate. The Doctor pushed it open and passed in. He seemed to have forgotten me.
"A taking little minx," I heard him muttering to himself as he fumbled with the door. "And no doubt meant well. But as for that cock-and-bull story--"
I pieced it together from the utterly divergent versions furnished me by the Professor and the Doctor, assisted, so far as later incidents are concerned, by knowledge common to the village.
I. THE STORY.
It commenced, so I calculate, about the year 2OOO B.C., or, to be more precise--for figures are not the strong point of the old chroniclers--when King Heremon ruled over Ireland and Harbundia was Queen of the White Ladies of Brittany, the fairy Malvina being her favourite attendant. It is with Malvina that this story is chiefly concerned. Various quite pleasant happenings are recorded to her credit. The White Ladies belonged to the "good people," and, on the whole, lived up to their reputation. But in Malvina, side by side with much that is commendable, there appears to have existed a most reprehensible spirit of mischief, displaying itself in pranks that, excusable, or at all events understandable, in, say, a pixy or a pigwidgeon, strike one as altogether unworthy of a well-principled White Lady, posing as the friend and benefactress of mankind. For merely refusing to dance with her--at midnight, by the shores of a mountain lake; neither the time nor the place calculated to appeal to an elderly gentleman, suffering possibly from rheumatism--she on one occasion transformed an eminently respectable proprietor of tin mines into a nightingale, necessitating a change of habits that to a business man must have been singularly irritating. On another occasion a quite important queen, having had the misfortune to quarrel with Malvina over some absurd point of etiquette in connection with a lizard, seems, on waking the next morning, to have found herself changed into what one judges, from the somewhat vague description afforded by the ancient chroniclers, to have been a sort of vegetable marrow.
Such changes, according to the Professor, who is prepared to maintain that evidence of an historical nature exists sufficient to prove that the White Ladies formed at one time an actual living community, must be taken in an allegorical sense. Just as modern lunatics believe themselves to be china vases or poll-parrots, and think and behave as such, so it must have been easy, the Professor argues, for beings of superior intelligence to have exerted hypnotic influence upon the superstitious savages by whom they were surrounded, and who, intellectually considered, could have been little more than children.
"Take Nebuchadnezzar." I am still quoting the Professor. "Nowadays we should put him into a strait-waistcoat. Had he lived in Northern Europe instead of Southern Asia, legend would have told us how some Kobold or Stromkarl had turned him into a composite amalgamation of a serpent, a cat and a kangaroo." Be that as it may, this passion for change--in other people--seems to have grown upon Malvina until she must have become little short of a public nuisance, and eventually it landed her in trouble.
The incident is unique in the annals of the White Ladies, and the chroniclers dwell upon it with evident satisfaction. It came about through the betrothal of King Heremon's only son, Prince Gerbot, to the Princess Berchta of Normandy. Malvina seems to have said nothing, but to have bided her time. The White Ladies of Brittany, it must be remembered, were not fairies pure and simple. Under certain conditions they were capable of becoming women, and this fact, one takes it, must have exerted a disturbing influence upon their relationships with eligible male mortals. Prince Gerbot may not have been altogether blameless. Young men in those sadly unenlightened days may not, in their dealings with ladies, white or otherwise, have always been the soul of discretion and propriety. One would like to think the best of her.
But even the best is indefensible. On the day appointed for the wedding she seems to have surpassed herself. Into what particular shape or form she altered the wretched Prince Gerbot; or into what shape or form she persuaded him that he had been altered, it really, so far as the moral responsibility of Malvina is concerned, seems to be immaterial; the chronicle does not state: evidently something too indelicate for a self-respecting chronicler to even hint at. As, judging from other passages in the book, squeamishness does not seem to have been the author's literary failing, the sensitive reader can feel only grateful for the omission. It would have been altogether too harrowing.
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