Concerning Corinna by James Branch Cabell
"Dr. Herrick told me that, in common with all the Enlightened or Illuminated Brothers, of which prying sect the age breeds so many, he trusted the great lines of Nature, not in the whole, but in part, as they believed Nature was in certain senses not true, and a betrayer, and that she was not wholly the benevolent power to endow, as accorded with the prevailing deceived notion of the vulgar. But he wished not to discuss more particularly than thus, as he had drawn up to himself a certain frontier of reticence; and so fell to petting a great black pig, of which he made an unseemly companion, and to talking idly."
A Gyges ring they bear about them still, To be, and not, seen when and where they will;
They tread on clouds, and though they sometimes fall, They fall like dew, and make no noise at all:
So silently they one to th' other come As colors steal into the pear or plum;
And air-like, leave no pression to be seen Where'er they met, or parting place has been.
ROBERT HERRICK.--My Lovers how They Come and Part.
The matter hinges entirely upon whether or not Robert Herrick was insane. Sir Thomas Browne always preferred to think that he was; whereas Philip Borsdale perversely considered the answer to be optional. Perversely, Sir Thomas protested, because he said that to believe in Herrick's sanity was not conducive to your own.
This much is certain: the old clergyman, a man of few friends and no intimates, enjoyed in Devon, thanks to his time-hallowed reputation for singularity, a certain immunity. In and about Dean Prior, for instance, it was conceded in 1674 that it was unusual for a divine of the Church of England to make a black pig--and a pig of peculiarly diabolical ugliness, at that--his ordinary associate; but Dean Prior had come long ago to accept the grisly brute as a concomitant of Dr. Herrick's presence almost as inevitable as his shadow. It was no crime to be fond of dumb animals, not even of one so inordinately unprepossessing; and you allowed for eccentricities, in any event, in dealing with a poet.
For Totnes, Buckfastleigh, Dean Prior--all that part of Devon, in fact--complacently basked in the reflected glory of Robert Herrick. People came from a long distance, now that the Parliamentary Wars were over, in order just to see the writer of the Hesperides and the Noble Numbers. And such enthusiasts found in Robert Herrick a hideous dreamy man, who, without ever perpetrating any actual discourtesy, always managed to dismiss them, somehow, with a sense of having been rebuffed.
Sir Thomas Browne, that ardent amateur of the curious, came into Devon, however, without the risk of incurring any such fate, inasmuch as the knight traveled westward simply to discuss with Master Philip Borsdale the recent doings of Cardinal Alioneri. Now, Philip Borsdale, as Sir Thomas knew, had been employed by Herrick in various transactions here irrelevant. In consequence, Sir Thomas Browne was not greatly surprised when, on his arrival at Buckfastleigh, Borsdale's body-servant told him that Master Borsdale had left instructions for Sir Thomas to follow him to Dean Prior. Browne complied, because his business with Borsdale was of importance.
Philip Borsdale was lounging in Dr. Herrick's chair, intent upon a lengthy manuscript, alone and to all appearances quite at home. The state of the room Sir Thomas found extraordinary; but he had graver matters to discuss; and he explained the results of his mission without extraneous comment.
"Yes, you have managed it to admiration," said Philip Borsdale, when the knight had made an end. Borsdale leaned back and laughed, purringly, for the outcome of this affair of the Cardinal and the Wax Image meant much to him from a pecuniary standpoint. "Yet it is odd a prince of any church which has done so much toward the discomfiture of sorcery should have entertained such ideas. It is also odd to note the series of coincidences which appears to have attended this Alioneri's practises."
"I noticed that," said Sir Thomas. After a while he said: "You think, then, that they must have been coincidences?"
"MUST is a word which intelligent people do not outwear by too constant usage."
And "Oh----?" said the knight, and said that alone, because he was familiar with the sparkle now in Borsdale's eyes, and knew it heralded an adventure for an amateur of the curious.
"I am not committing myself, mark you, Sir Thomas, to any statement whatever, beyond the observation that these coincidences were noticeable. I add, with superficial irrelevance, that Dr. Herrick disappeared last night."
"I am not surprised," said Sir Thomas, drily. "No possible antics would astonish me on the part of that unvenerable madman. When I was last in Totnes, he broke down in the midst of a sermon, and flung the manuscript of it at his congregation, and cursed them roundly for not paying closer attention. Such was never my ideal of absolute decorum in the pulpit. Moreover, it is unusual for a minister of the Church of England to be accompanied everywhere by a pig with whom he discusses the affairs of the parish precisely as if the pig were a human being."
"The pig--he whimsically called the pig Corinna, sir, in honor of that imaginary mistress to whom he addressed so many verses--why, the pig also has disappeared. Oh, but of course that at least is simply a coincidence. . . . I grant you it was an uncanny beast. And I grant you that Dr. Herrick was a dubious ornament to his calling. Of that I am doubly certain to-day," said Borsdale, and he waved his hand comprehensively, "in view of the state in which--you see--he left this room. Yes, he was quietly writing here at eleven o'clock last night when old Prudence Baldwin, his housekeeper, last saw him. Afterward Dr. Herrick appears to have diverted himself by taking away the mats and chalking geometrical designs upon the floor, as well as by burning some sort of incense in this brasier."
"But such avocations, Philip, are not necessarily indicative of sanity. No, it is not, upon the whole, an inevitable manner for an elderly parson to while away an evening."
"Oh, but that was only a part, sir. He also left the clothes he was wearing--in a rather peculiarly constructed heap, as you can see. Among them, by the way, I found this flattened and corroded bullet. That puzzled me. I think I understand it now." Thus Borsdale, as he composedly smoked his churchwarden. "In short, the whole affair is as mysterious----"
Here Sir Thomas raised his hand. "Spare me the simile. I detect a vista of curious perils such as infinitely outshines verbal brilliancy. You need my aid in some insane attempt." He considered. He said: "So! you have been retained?"
"I have been asked to help him. Of course I did not know of what he meant to try. In short, Dr. Herrick left this manuscript, as well as certain instructions for me. The last are--well! unusual."
"Ah, yes! You hearten me. I have long had my suspicions as to this Herrick, though. . . . And what are we to do?"
"I really cannot inform you, sir. I doubt if I could explain in any workaday English even what we will attempt to do," said Philip Borsdale. "I do say this: You believe the business which we have settled, involving as it does the lives of thousands of men and women, to be of importance. I swear to you that, as set against what we will essay, all we have done is trivial. As pitted against the business we will attempt to-night, our previous achievements are suggestive of the evolutions of two sand-fleas beside the ocean. The prize at which this adventure aims is so stupendous that I cannot name it."
"Oh, but you must, Philip. I am no more afraid of the local constabulary than I am of the local notions as to what respectability entails. I may confess, however, that I am afraid of wagering against unknown odds."
Borsdale reflected. Then he said, with deliberation: "Dr. Herrick's was, when you come to think of it, an unusual life. He is--or perhaps I ought to say he was--upward of eighty-three. He has lived here for over a half-century, and during that time he has never attempted to make either a friend or an enemy. He was--indifferent, let us say. Talking to Dr. Herrick was, somehow, like talking to a man in a fog. . . . Meanwhile, he wrote his verses to imaginary women--to Corinna and Julia, to Myrha, Electra and Perilla--those lovely, shadow women who never, in so far as we know, had any real existence----"
Sir Thomas smiled. "Of course. They are mere figments of the poet, pegs to hang rhymes on. And yet--let us go on. I know that Herrick never willingly so much as spoke with a woman."
"Not in so far as we know, I said." And Borsdale paused. "Then, too, he wrote such dainty, merry poems about the fairies. Yes, it was all of fifty years ago that Dr. Herrick first appeared in print with his Description of the King and Queen of the Fairies. The thought seems always to have haunted him."
The knight's face changed, a little by a little. "I have long been an amateur of the curious," he said, strangely quiet. "I do not think that anything you may say will surprise me inordinately."
"He had found in every country in the world traditions of a race who were human--yet more than human. That is the most exact fashion in which I can express his beginnings. On every side he found the notion of a race who can impinge on mortal life and partake of it--but always without exercising the last reach of their endowments. Oh, the tradition exists everywhere, whether you call these occasional interlopers fauns, fairies, gnomes, ondines, incubi, or demons. They could, according to these fables, temporarily restrict themselves into our life, just as a swimmer may elect to use only one arm--or, a more fitting comparison, become apparent to our human senses in the fashion of a cube which can obtrude only one of its six surfaces into a plane. You follow me, of course, sir?--to the triangles and circles and hexagons this cube would seem to be an ordinary square. Conceiving such a race to exist, we might talk with them, might jostle them in the streets, might even intermarry with them, sir--and always see in them only human beings, and solely because of our senses' limitations."
"I comprehend. These are exactly the speculations that would appeal to an unbalanced mind--is that not your thought, Philip?"
"Why, there is nothing particularly insane, Sir Thomas, in desiring to explore in fields beyond those which our senses make perceptible. It is very certain these fields exist; and the question of their extent I take to be both interesting and important."
Then Sir Thomas said: "Like any other rational man, I have occasionally thought of this endeavor at which you hint. We exist--you and I and all the others--in what we glibly call the universe. All that we know of it is through what we entitle our five senses, which, when provoked to action, will cause a chemical change in a few ounces of spongy matter packed in our skulls. There are no grounds for believing that this particular method of communication is adequate, or even that the agents which produce it are veracious. Meanwhile, we are in touch with what exists through our five senses only. It may be that they lie to us. There is, at least, no reason for assuming them to be infallible."
"But reflection plows a deeper furrow, Sir Thomas. Even in the exercise of any one of these five senses it is certain that we are excelled by what we vaingloriously call the lower forms of life. A dog has powers of scent we cannot reach to, birds hear the crawling of a worm, insects distinguish those rays in the spectrum which lie beyond violet and red, and are invisible to us; and snails and fish and ants--perhaps all other living creatures, indeed--have senses which man does not share at all, and has no name for. Granted that we human beings alone possess the power of reasoning, the fact remains that we invariably start with false premises, and always pass our judgments when biased at the best by incomplete reports of everything in the universe, and very possibly by reports which lie flat-footedly."
You saw that Browne was troubled. Now he rose. "Nothing will come of this. I do not touch upon the desirability of conquering those fields at which we dare only to hint. No, I am not afraid. I dare assist you in doing anything Dr. Herrick asks, because I know that nothing will come of such endeavors. Much is permitted us--'but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, to us who are no more than human, Ye shall not eat of it.'"
"Yet Dr. Herrick, as many other men have done, thought otherwise. I, too, will venture a quotation. 'Didst thou never see a lark in a cage? Such is the soul in the body: this world is like her little turf of grass, and the heavens o'er our heads, like her looking-glass, only gives us a miserable knowledge of the small compass of our prison.' Many years ago that lamentation was familiar. What wonder, then, that Dr. Herrick should have dared to repeat it yesterday? And what wonder if he tried to free the prisoner?"
"Such freedom is forbidden," Sir Thomas stubbornly replied. "I have long known that Herrick was formerly in correspondence with John Heydon, and Robert Flood, and others of the Illuminated, as they call themselves. There are many of this sect in England, as we all know; and we hear much silly chatter of Elixirs and Philosopher's Stones in connection with them. But I happen to know somewhat of their real aims and tenets. I do not care to know any more than I do. If it be true that all of which man is conscious is just a portion of a curtain, and that the actual universe in nothing resembles our notion of it, I am willing to believe this curtain was placed there for some righteous and wise reason. They tell me the curtain may be lifted. Whether this be true or no, I must for my own sanity's sake insist it can never be lifted."
"But what if it were not forbidden? For Dr. Herrick asserts he has already demonstrated that."
Sir Thomas interrupted, with odd quickness. "True, we must bear it in mind the man never married--Did he, by any chance, possess a crystal of Venice glass three inches square?"
And Borsdale gaped. "I found it with his manuscript. But he said nothing of it. . . . How could you guess?"
Sir Thomas reflectively scraped the edge of the glass with his finger-nail. "You would be none the happier for knowing, Philip. Yes, that is a blood-stain here. I see. And Herrick, so far as we know, had never in his life loved any woman. He is the only poet in history who never demonstrably loved any woman. I think you had better read me his manuscript, Philip."
This Philip Borsdale did.
Then Sir Thomas said, as quiet epilogue: "This, if it be true, would explain much as to that lovely land of eternal spring and daffodils and friendly girls, of which his verses make us free. It would even explain Corinna and Herrick's rapt living without any human ties. For all poets since the time of AEschylus, who could not write until he was too drunken to walk, have been most readily seduced by whatever stimulus most tended to heighten their imaginings; so that for the sake of a song's perfection they have freely resorted to divers artificial inspirations, and very often without evincing any undue squeamishness. . . . I spoke of AEschylus. I am sorry, Philip, that you are not familiar with ancient Greek life. There is so much I could tell you of, in that event, of the quaint cult of Kore, or Pherephatta, and of the swine of Eubouleus, and of certain ambiguous maidens, whom those old Grecians fabled--oh, very ignorantly fabled, my lad, of course--to rule in a more quietly lit and more tranquil world than we blunder about. I think I could explain much which now seems mysterious--yes, and the daffodils, also, that Herrick wrote of so constantly. But it is better not to talk of these sinister delusions of heathenry." Sir Thomas shrugged. "For my reward would be to have you think me mad. I prefer to iterate the verdict of all logical people, and formally to register my opinion that Robert Herrick was indisputably a lunatic."
Borsdale did not seem perturbed. "I think the record of his experiments is true, in any event. You will concede that their results were startling? And what if his deductions be the truth? what if our limited senses have reported to us so very little of the universe, and even that little untruthfully?" He laughed and drummed impatiently upon the table. "At least, he tells us that the boy returned. I fervently believe that in this matter Dr. Herrick was capable of any crime except falsehood. Oh, no I depend on it, he also will return."
"You imagine Herrick will break down the door between this world and that other inconceivable world which all of us have dreamed of! To me, my lad, it seems as if this Herrick aimed dangerously near to repetition of the Primal Sin, for all that he handles it like a problem in mechanical mathematics. The poet writes as if he were instructing a dame's school as to the advisability of becoming omnipotent."
"Well, well! I am not defending Dr. Herrick in anything save his desire to know the truth. In this respect at least, he has proven himself to be both admirable and fearless. And at worst, he only strives to do what Jacob did at Peniel," said Philip Borsdale, lightly. "The patriarch, as I recall, was blessed for acting as he did. The legend is not irrelevant, I think."
They passed into the adjoining room.
Thus the two men came into a high-ceiled apartment, cylindrical in shape, with plastered walls painted green everywhere save for the quaint embellishment of a large oval, wherein a woman, having an eagle's beak, grasped in one hand a serpent and in the other a knife. Sir Thomas Browne seemed to recognize this curious design, and gave an ominous nod.
Borsdale said: "You see Dr. Herrick had prepared everything. And much of what we are about to do is merely symbolical, of course. Most people undervalue symbols. They do not seem to understand that there could never have been any conceivable need of inventing a periphrasis for what did not exist."
Sir Thomas Browne regarded Borsdale for a while intently. Then the knight gave his habitual shrugging gesture. "You are braver than I, Philip, because you are more ignorant than I. I have been too long an amateur of the curious. Sometimes in over-credulous moments I have almost believed that in sober verity there are reasoning beings who are not human--beings that for their own dark purposes seek union with us. Indeed, I went into Pomerania once to talk with John Dietrick of Ramdin. He told me one of those relations whose truth we dread, a tale which I did not dare, I tell you candidly, even to discuss in my Vulgar Errors. Then there is Helgi Thorison's history, and that of Leonard of Basle also. Oh, there are more recorded stories of this nature than you dream of, Philip. We have only the choice between believing that all these men were madmen, and believing that ordinary human life is led by a drugged animal who drowses through a purblind existence among merciful veils. And these female creatures--these Corinnas, Perillas, Myrhas, and Electras--can it be possible that they are always striving, for their own strange ends, to rouse the sleeping animal and break the kindly veils?--and are they permitted to use such amiable enticements as Herrick describes? Oh, no, all this is just a madman's dream, dear lad, and we must not dare to consider it seriously, lest we become no more sane than he."
"But you will aid me?" Borsdale said.
"Yes, I will aid you, Philip, for in Herrick's case I take it that the mischief is consummated already; and we, I think, risk nothing worse than death. But you will need another knife a little later--a knife that will be clean."
"I had forgotten." Borsdale withdrew, and presently returned with a bone-handled knife. And then he made a light. "Are you quite ready, sir?"
Sir Thomas Browne, that aging amateur of the curious, could not resist a laugh.
And then they sat about proceedings of which, for obvious reasons, the details are best left unrecorded. It was not an unconscionable while before they seemed to be aware of unusual phenomena. But as Sir Thomas always pointed out, in subsequent discussions, these were quite possibly the fruitage of excited imagination.
"Now, Philip!--now, give me the knife!" cried Sir Thomas Browne. He knew for the first time, despite many previous mischancy happenings, what real terror was.
The room was thick with blinding smoke by this, so that Borsdale could see nothing save his co-partner in this adventure. Both men were shaken by what had occurred before. Borsdale incuriously perceived that old Sir Thomas rose, tense as a cat about to pounce, and that he caught the unstained knife from Borsdale's hand, and flung it like a javelin into the vapor which encompassed them. This gesture stirred the smoke so that Borsdale could see the knife quiver and fall, and note the tiny triangle of unbared plaster it had cut in the painted woman's breast. Within the same instant he had perceived a naked man who staggered.
"Iz adu kronyeshnago----!" The intruder's thin, shrill wail was that of a frightened child. The man strode forward, choked, seemed to grope his way. His face was not good to look at. Horror gripped and tore at every member of the cadaverous old body, as a high wind tugs at a flag. The two witnesses of Herrick's agony did not stir during the instant wherein the frenzied man stooped, moving stiffly like an ill-made toy, and took up the knife.
"Oh, yes, I knew what he was about to do," said Sir Thomas Browne afterward, in his quiet fashion. "I did not try to stop him. If Herrick had been my dearest friend, I would not have interfered. I had seen his face, you comprehend. Yes, it was kinder to let him die. It was curious, though, as he stood there hacking his chest, how at each stab he deliberately twisted the knife. I suppose the pain distracted his mind from what he was remembering. I should have forewarned Borsdale of this possible outcome at the very first, I suppose. But, then, which one of us is always wise?"
So this adventure came to nothing. For its significance, if any, hinged upon Robert Herrick's sanity, which was at best a disputable quantity. Grant him insane, and the whole business, as Sir Thomas was at large pains to point out, dwindles at once into the irresponsible vagaries of a madman.
"And all the while, for what we know, he had been hiding somewhere in the house. We never searched it. Oh, yes, there is no doubt he was insane," said Sir Thomas, comfortably.
"Faith! what he moaned was gibberish, of course----"
"Oddly enough, his words were intelligible. They meant in Russian 'Out of the lowest hell.'"
"But, why, in God's name, Russian?"
"I am sure I do not know," Sir Thomas replied; and he did not appear at all to regret his ignorance.
But Borsdale meditated, disappointedly. "Oh, yes, the outcome is ambiguous, Sir Thomas, in every way. I think we may safely take it as a warning, in any event, that this world of ours, whatever its deficiencies, was meant to be inhabited by men and women only."
"Now I," was Sir Thomas's verdict, "prefer to take it as a warning that insane people ought to be restrained."
"Ah, well, insanity is only one of the many forms of being abnormal. Yes, I think it proves that all abnormal people ought to be restrained. Perhaps it proves that they are very potently restrained," said Philip Borsdale, perversely.
Perversely, Sir Thomas always steadfastly protested, because he said that to believe in Herrick's sanity was not conducive to your own.
So Sir Thomas shrugged, and went toward the open window. Without the road was a dazzling gray under the noon sun, for the sky was cloudless. The ordered trees were rustling pleasantly, very brave in their autumnal liveries. Under a maple across the way some seven laborers were joking lazily as they ate their dinner. A wagon lumbered by, the driver whistling. In front of the house a woman had stopped to rearrange the pink cap of the baby she was carrying. The child had just reached up fat and uncertain little arms to kiss her. Nothing that Browne saw was out of ordinary, kindly human life.
"Well, after all," said Sir Thomas, upon a sudden, "for one, I think it is an endurable world, just as it stands."
And Borsdale looked up from a letter he had been reading. It was from a woman who has no concern with this tale, and its contents were of no importance to any one save Borsdale.
"Now, do you know," said Philip Borsdale, "I am beginning to think you the most sensible man of my acquaintance! Oh, yes, beyond doubt it is an endurable sun-nurtured world--just as it stands. It makes it doubly odd that Dr. Herrick should have chosen always to
'Write of groves, and twilights, and to sing The court of Mab, and of the Fairy King, And write of Hell.'"
Sir Thomas touched his arm, protestingly. "Ah, but you have forgotten what follows, Philip--
'I sing, and ever shall, Of Heaven,--and hope to have it after all.'"
"Well! I cry Amen," said Borsdale. "But I wish I could forget the old man's face."
"Oh, and I also," Sir Thomas said. "And I cry Amen with far more heartiness, my lad, because I, too, once dreamed of--of Corinna, shall we say?"