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‘THE most daring and original novel of the century is When It Was Dark by Guy Thorne.’ Since the date of publication was 1903, this claim by the publishers might look as cautious as a bet on a cert. How many still more daring and original novels had had an opportunity to be issued since the twentieth century began?
The answer is that although the publishers’ statement might in one sense appear somewhat absurd, it was not merely true, but stayed true, or as true as any such assertion can be held to be, for years and years. When It Was Dark was one of the most significant works of the Edwardian and early Georgian eras. It was read by people who found little to excite them in the novels of the period which have, as the saying goes, ‘lived’. It is, by any standards, a tour de force of extraordinary vivacity and skill. And its stew of spicy cunning, gross pomposity, wild melodrama, heavy religiosity, anti-Semitism and acute class-consciousness, has a niff and flavour which re-create that not very distant age more vividly and authentically than many far better books.
An early and useful summary of this plot was given by the Bishop of London, who, soon after the book was published, preached about it at Westminster Abbey. He said: "I wonder whether any of you have read that remarkable work of fiction entitled When It Was Dark? It paints, in wonderful colours. what it seems to me the world would be if for six months, as in the story is supposed to be the case, owing to a gigantic fraud, the Resurrection might be supposed never to have occurred, and as you feel the darkness creeping round the world, you see how Woman in a moment loses the best friend she ever had, and crime and violence increase in every part of the world. When you see how darkness settles down upon the human spirit, regarding the Christian record as a fable, then you quit with something like adequate thanksgiving, and thank God it is light because of the awful darkness when it was dark."
Guy Thorne, a prolific novelist and journalist whose real name was Ranger-Gull, opens his book, subtitled The Story of a Great Conspiracy, in the study of Mr Byars, Vicar of St Thomas’s, Walktown. (The church itself has long rows of cushioned seats each labelled with the name of the person who rented it. The congregation consists of ‘the moderately prosperous and wholly vulgar Lancashire people’.) To the distress of Mr Byars, "Walktown was a stronghold of the Unitarians. The wealthy Jews of two generations back, men who made vast fortunes in the Black Valley of the Irwell, had chosen Walktown to dwell in. Their grandsons had found it more politic to abjure their ancient faith. A few had become Christians – at least in name, inasmuch as they rented pews at St Thomas’s – but others had compromised by embracing a faith, or rather a dogma, which is simply Judaism without its ritual and ceremonial obligations. The Baumanns, the Hildersheimers, the Steinhardts, flourished in Walktown … The vicar had two strong elements to contend with … on the one hand the Lancashire natives, on the other the wealthy Jewish families. The first were hard, uncultured people, hating everything that had not its origin and end in commerce. They disliked Mr Byars because he was a gentleman and because he was educated."
This Ambrose Byars is in bad trouble because his curate, Basil Gortre, who is engaged to his daughter Helena, is leaving for a London parish and it is going to be hard to replace him: ‘The best men would not come to the North. Men of family, with decent degrees, Oxford men, Cambridge men, accustomed to decent society and intellectual friends, knew far too much to accept a title in the Manchester district.’ No wonder the vicar is worried. But Helena knows of a remedy. Entering the study she announces : ‘I’ve brought Punch, father, it’s just come. Leave your work now and enjoy yourself for half an hour before dinner. Basil will be here by the time you’re finished.’ Anyone today can get an easy laugh out of the thought of a serious man’s serious troubles being in any way alleviated by a half-hour with the latest issue of Punch. But there is more to it
than a laugh. The point is that Thorne had his facts right. A re-reading of Punch for the years, say, 1900 to 1903 proves it. Punch, the fun-bible of the genteel (as distinct from ‘wholly vulgar’) section of the British middle class, portrayed as exactly as does Thorne the atmosphere of a period which, we have to keep reminding ourselves, was part of our own century. A period, that is to say, when ‘men accustomed to decent society’ would only under great pressure venture much north of the Thames Valley, and people with names such as Baumann or Hildersheimer were automatically suspect of undermining the national culture. (‘It was’, says Thorne in one of his frequent anti-cultural asides, ‘people of this class who supported the magnificent concerts in the Free Trade Hall at Manchester, who bought the pictures and read the books. They had brought an alien culture to the neighbourhood.’)
Basil Goitre, curate, now arrives. He is going to be the hero of the book, so he ‘had private means of his own, and belonged to an old west country family’. ‘The three sat down to dine. It was a simple meal, some fish, cold beef and a pudding, with a bottle of beer for the curate and a glass of claret for the vicar. The housemaid did not wait upon them, for they found the meal more intimate and enjoyable without her.’ The fact of not having a servant to wait upon three people is thus seen as a very slight, though intelligible, eccentricity. The ‘simplicity’ of the meal itself, just three courses with beer and wine, has to be seen in contrast to the abominable sensuality of the food savoured by one or two of the villains soon to be encountered.
It is learned that Goitre is to share rooms in the Inns of Court with Harold Spence, who is ‘writing leaders for the Daily Wire and doing very well’, and a famous archaeologist named Cyril Hands who, the vicar recalls, recently discovered some inscriptions in ‘the place which is thought may be Golgotha, you know’.
Harmless enough, you might think nowadays, to announce to your fiancee and your future father-in-law that you proposed to live in Lincoln’s Inn with a distinguished archaeologist and the leader-writer of The Times – for, as later events indicate, the
Daily Wire is a thinnish disguise for The Times. But not so in 1903.
"Isn’t it just a little, well, bachelor?’ said Helena, rather nervously. Gortre smiled at the question. ‘No, dear,’ he said, ‘I don’t think you need be afraid … You don’t know Harold. He is quite bourgeois in his habits; despite his intellect hates a muddle; always dresses extremely well, and goes to church like any married man.’ [The idea that any ordinary man of 'intellect' might be expected to love a muddle is characteristic.] ‘The days when you couldn’t be a genius without being dirty’, said the Vicar, ‘are gone. I am glad of it. I was staying at St Ives last summer, where there is quite an artistic settlement. All the painters carried golf clubs and looked like professional athletes. They drink Bohea in Bohemia now.’"
Helena is reassured. She leaves the vicar and curate to smoke their pipes and talk, principally, of anti-Christ. Gotre is full of foreboding.
"Gortre stood by the mantelshelf, leaning his elbow upon it. One of the ornaments of the mantel was a head of Christ, photographed on china, from Murillo, and held in a large silver frame like a photograph frame. There came a sudden knock at the door. It startled Gortre and he moved suddenly. His elbow slid along the marble of the shelf and dislodged the picture which fell upon the floor and was broken into a hundred pieces, crashing loudly upon the fender. The housemaid who had knocked stood for a moment looking with dismay upon the breakage. Then she turned to the vicar. ‘Mr Schuabe from Mount Prospect to see you. Sir,’ she said; ‘I’ve shown him into the drawing-room.’"
This Constantine Schuabe is a multi-millionaire, an M.P. of overpowering intellect and eloquence; he owns the Daily Wire and is ‘one of the ten most striking-looking men in England’. Standing motionless now in the vicar’s drawing-room,
"The man was tall … and the heavy coat of fur he was wearing increased the impression of proportioned size, of massiveness, which was part of his personality. His hair was a very dark red, smooth and abundant … His features were Semitic, but without a trace of that fulness, and sometimes coarseness, which often marks the Jew who has come to the middle period of life. The eyes were large and black, but without animation in ordinary use-and-wont. They did not light up as he spoke, but yet the expression was not veiled or obscured. They were coldly, terribly aware, with something of the sinister and untroubled regard one sees in a reptile’s eyes. Most people, with the casual view, called him merely indomitable, but there were others who thought they read deeper and saw some¬ thing evil and monstrous about the man … now and again, two or three people would speak of him to each other without reserve, and on such occasions they generally agreed to this feeling of the sinister and malign."
What, in fact, we have here is the first appearance in full rig of a figure who is to reappear with fascinating frequency in British literature right through the first third of the century, most notably in the novels of John Buchan. The social significance of his popularity with the British middle class is profound, particularly when it is noted that, at a slightly later stage, and not by any means in fiction alone, he is discovered among the principal Devil-figures of Nazi mythology.
At first sight it would seem difficult to give any sort of credibility to a figure who is at the same time a multi-millionaire and a devilish and deliberate agent for the destruction of established society. (He is sometimes a multi-millionaire and a Bolshevik, sometimes a multi-millionaire and an anarchist. The label is not of great importance, provided it describes something terribly subversive.) He is, in fact, a figure straight out of the Protocol of the Elders of Zion.
But for scores of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people, he was not merely credible; his existence was a social and emotional necessity.
As a class, the middle class was menaced on two fronts. The threat from below by the working class was increasing in fact and, so to speak, in visibility. It could be discerned as an insistent, persisting threat by people who twenty years earlier might have seen it as a passing wave of agitation. The British industrial crisis, which in less than ten years was going to reach dimensions seeming to justify those who thought the danger of civil war more immediate than that of international war, was already developing – clearly in the sight of some, to others as a bugbear, real part of the time, and part of the time susceptible of being dismissed as an ugly hallucination.
On the other front were the forces known collectively to the middle class as the ‘New Rich’. In one sense, they were not so new as all that. They had been detected, for instance, those threatening, subversive hordes of Midian, prowling around the English Way of Life in Trollope’s great sociological novel The Way We Live Now, published in the 1870s. The figure of Melmotte, so unimaginably rich, so devilish crooked, already lowered and lurched among established institutions. He was a power in the Tory Party. Royalty went to his house.
The phenomenon, however, though ideologically frightful, was not immediately and materially relevant to the lives of most people of the middle class. They felt that they, like the Empire, were at least stable, and perhaps on the up-grade. By the turn of the century this confidence had been badly shaken. It may be supposed that only pundits (and by no means all of them) perceived that the Empire had already passed its zenith, and that the forces which had brought it into being were shifting direction; the character of the central British economy was so changing that the entire structure, still outwardly as stable as ever, was in fact precarious. But the most recondite observations of the pundits are rarely hidden so deep as is imagined. Like other great state secrets, they leak, they make a smell in the air. The man in the street or the lending library may not know what makes the smell, but he knows there is a bit of a stink somewhere. Hobsbawm, in Industry and Empire, remarks that
"The somnolence of the economy was already obvious in British society in the last decades before 1914. Already the rare dynamic entrepreneurs of Edwardian Britain were, more often than not, foreigners or minority groups (the increasingly important German-Jewish financiers who provided the excuse for much of the pervasive anti-Semitism of the period, the Americans so important in the electrical industry, the Germans in chemicals)."
Like Melmotte earlier, the New Rich of the early twentieth century were sometimes mysteriously, sometimes obtrusively, powerful in politics. Like him, they were cultivated by royalty. To put it plainly, they mucked about with the value of money, notably by their demonic abracadabra on the Stock Exchange. Even if a majority of them and their hangers-on were English by birth, their interests were not identical with the interests of the English middle class.
A very large segment of the middle class lived, wholly or in part, on fixed incomes. And the activities both of the New Rich and of the proletariat were seen as jointly responsible for that most immediate and damaging of developments, the rise in the cost of living.
In facing the threat from the proletariat, the middle class found itself in an ideological dilemma. It was a necessary part of its creed that the British working man was good – often a genuine Tory – at heart. Why then did he make unreasonable demands, why did he threaten to strike or actually strike, when strikes could surely be seen as disastrous to ‘the interests of the community as a whole’ ?
It was convenient, and in a sense comforting, to reply that he did so because he was the dupe and victim of foreign agitators, with foreign ideas. And whence did these agitators, who must evidently be operating on a gigantic scale, get their money? Where could they be getting it from except the devious, over-brained, ruthless and essentially un-English Jewish financiers? Thus a composite figure was found who combined the worst features of both the threatening elements.
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Here we have a new aspect of the historical phenomenon represented by this book and its popularity. Some of its attitudes to class, to sex and to the Jews offer a preview of assumptions which are to recur in popular British literature during subsequent decades. To that extent the modern reader may feel that the Edwardians were not after all so different from himself as he may have supposed. But it is impossible to imagine a novelist of any period after 1914 basing his entire plot on the assumption that a general belief in the Incarnation and the Resurrection is the sole force which prevents Western civilization from blowing up with a bang. (It was the view, one may recall, of Ivan Karamazov.) I have just used the phrase -after 1914. But it is really impossible to know at precisely what point in British history such a plot would cease to be credible. Naturally at the time of its publication the book was greeted with derision and occasional disgust by considerable numbers of people. But as its circulation figures, not to mention the sermons of the bishops, show, the notion of Christianity and the literal truth of the Gospels as the main if not the sole factor holding civilization together was accepted in England to an extent which seems suddenly to remove the Edwardians to a remote and almost wholly alien world. A world which has seemed largely familiar abruptly becomes as strange as the world of the Middle Ages. This kind of illumination, this kind of jolt to one’s historical sense, is among the reasons why a study of the bestsellers is of serious importance and certainly not to be considered in the light of a mere amusement to be enjoyed chiefly for the pur¬ pose of noting how ‘odd’ or unsophisticated their authors and mass public must have been.
What has, of course, happened is that Hands, guided by corrupt lonides, has found the inscription forged by Sir Robert Llwellyn, and has sent the incontrovertible (so it seems) tidings to Spence. Although there was, in those days, no Press Council, Ommaney has a proper sense of journalistic responsibility and, before publishing anything, insists on a meeting with the Prime Minister. Kaiser Wilhelm, German Emperor, is also immediately made aware of the perils now facing civilization.
What is decided is that a Commission of Experts (and here we seem to be in more or less modern times) shall visit the scene. And who leads this great international Commission? None other, naturally, than Professor and Knight Llwellyn. He has no difficulty in convincing his colleagues, plus Harold Spence, who has been rushed by the Daily Wire to the scene, that the fatal inscription is indeed genuine. It stands up to every test.
Now it emerges that the principal, if not the only force, which has been holding civilization together is the belief that Christ rose from the dead.
Just for a start, the Turks begin to massacre the Balkan
peoples. The Russians mobilize. India revolts. ‘In America; says a newspaper report,
"we find a wave of lawlessness and fierce riot passing over the country such as it has never known before. The Irishmen and the Italians who throng the congested quarters of the great cities are robbing and murdering Protestants and Jews. From Australia the foremost prelate of a great country writes of the utter overthrow of a communal moral sense … ‘Everywhere I see morals, no less than the religion which inculcates them, falling into neglect. Set aside in a spirit of despair by fathers and mothers, treated with contempt by youths and maidens, spat upon and cursed by a degraded populace, assailed with eager sarcasm by the polite and cultured.’
"The terrible seriousness of the situation need hardly be further insisted on here. Its reality cannot be more vividly indicated than by the statement of a single fact – CONSOLS ARE DOWN TO SIXTY-FIVE."
The statement also vividly enough indicates the values and attitude of a society in which it can be published, in what the Bishop of London could describe as a ‘remarkable work of fiction’, and regarded as credible and at least worthy of serious discussion by scores of thousands of readers. (Hands, reading all this and regarding himself as responsible for the original ‘discovery’, goes partly mad and dies in a fit.)
The most significant feature of the whole affair is the effect upon the position of women. For it turns out that male belief in the Resurrection is the only factor which prevents most men treating most women in bestial fashion. In the aftermath of the news from Jerusalem, criminal assaults upon women in England rose by nearly 200 per cent. In Ireland, ‘with the exception of Ulster, the increase was only eight per cent.’ The explanation for this is that at the outset the Vatican not only denied the slightest validity to the ‘discovery’ but absolutely forbade Roman Catholics even to discuss it. That was why the women of southern Ireland were relatively safe, while in the Protestant north men went hog-wild.
The Secretary of the World’s Women League reports that
‘crimes of ordinary violence, wife-beating and the like, have increased, on an average, fifty per cent all over the United Kingdom.’ He is able to produce field reports from reliable individuals up and down the country. The vicar of St Saviour’s, Birmingham, notes: ‘Now that the Incarnation is on all hands said to be a myth, the greatest restraint upon human passion is removed … In my district I have found that the moment men give up Christ and believe in this "discovery", the moment the Virgin Birth and the manifestation to the Magdalene are dismissed as untrue, women’s claims to consideration and reverence for women’s chastity in the eyes of these men disappear.’
Information reaching the World’s Women League from the United States is no less alarming. Reclaimed prostitutes are rushing from the League’s ‘homes’ back to the streets, only to return a few weeks later as mere wrecks, on account of the novel and appalling brutality of the men. "The state of the lower parts of Chicago and New York City has become so bad that even the municipal authorities have become seriously alarmed. Unmentionable orgies take place in public. Accordingly a bill is to be rushed through Congress licensing so many houses of ill-fame in each city ward, according to the Continental system."
But God is not mocked. Vengeance is mine saith the Lord. Vengeance in this case takes the form of our man Basil Gortre, curate. Gortre has all along, as we know, had his suspicions of the almost universally respected, if sometimes feared, Constantine Schuabe. Then there was the episode of the broken Murillo. And immediately after that came Schuabe’s arrogantly over-confident hints of something terrible about to happen to the pale Nazarene.
Since then clues have been piling up, more particularly in an episode at Dieppe in which Gortre, on a brief holiday with Helena, Byars, and Spence, sees Llwellyn getting into the same Paris-bound express as Schuabe himself. Then occurs an amazing stroke of luck for the righteous or, it might be more prudent to say, an act of Providence. For none other than Gertrude Hunt, somewhat under the influence of the news that she is suffering from a slow complaint and has only a couple of years to live, has, to put it coarsely, ‘got religion’.
Gortre’s vicar at the great Bloomsbury Church of St Mary’s tells him the story.
"This poor girl told me all about it. the same very sordid story one is always hearing. She is a favourite burlesque actress, and she lives very expensively in those gorgeous new flats – Bloomsbury Court. Some wealthy scoundrel pays for it all … Oh, my dear fellow, if the world only knew what I know! Great and honoured names in the senate, the forum, the Court, unsullied before the eyes of men. And then these hideous establishments and secret ties! This is a wicked city … She has expressed a wish to see you to talk things over … Go to her and save her. We must…"
Gotre goes to see Gertrude. He has been there only a short time when Professor Llwellyn enters. (This is just after his first, secret trip to Palestine when he forged the inscription.) Enraged at finding the young curate closeted with his Circe, he allows himself, like Schuabe on that earlier occasion, to be provoked into an astoundingly indiscreet series of threats and prophecies as to what will soon befall ‘all meddling priests … Your Christ. your God, the pale dreamer of the East, shall be revealed to you and all men at last!’
Since that day. Gotre has secured the very useful backing of Sir Michael Manichoe, a man of colossal wealth who ‘represented the curious spectacle to sociologists and the world at large, of a Jew by origin who had become a Christian by conviction and one of the sincerest sons of the English Church as he understood it … He had been Home Secretary under a former Conservative administration, but had retired from office.’ But although now a back-bencher ‘he enjoyed the confidence of the chiefs of his party.’
With the help of Manichoe’s money, and his own vigorous London vicar (who gets a lot of money from Manichoe to keep the church and parish going), Gortre gives Gertrude a healthy Christian brain-washing, and gets her secretly to disappear from Bloomsbury Court Mansions and the clutches of Sir Robert Llewellyn. She goes into concealment in a remote country village.
Meanwhile Sir Robert, what with over-rich food and nervous premonitions brought on by the crash of civilization he has helped to bring about, is a prey to overpowering sexual lust for the absconding Gertrude. Nobody else will satisfy him. Gortre in London and Gertrude in her hide-out sense this. After much soul-searching, they decide that, horrible and in some senses sinful as such a course must be, the right thing for her to do is to return to Sir Robert, play upon his lusts, and worm out of him the truth of what Gortre knows must be the case, but can produce no evidence to prove.
She does so. In a passionate bedroom scene Llewellyn tells all, boastfully and in detail.
Gertrude hurries off to report.
Ommaney and Harold Spence are now at once brought into action. Spence is sent off to Palestine with unlimited money. He runs to earth lonides, who, just after Llwellyn’s first visit, has ‘inherited’ a large sum of money and retired to a country village a couple of days ride from Jerusalem. Spence, after paying over a heavy bribe to the Turkish Governor of the area, secures a tough bodyguard and goes out to lonides’ house. The Turkish official has asked, and secured from a slightly reluctant Spence, permission to torture lonides if that is the only way to secure his confession.
The threat is sufficient. lonides tells how he was bribed to assist Llwellyn in the faking of the alleged message from Joseph of Arimathea, the re-sealing and its subsequent discovery by Hands, led thither by lonides.
With this confession, the fate of Schuabe, the Professor and their whole conspiracy is sealed. Not only the establishment but the deluded populace turn against them. Llwellyn is lynched, trampled to death by the mob under the eyes of his wife in the home which he has so often deserted. Schuabe escapes to Manchester with the intention of committing suicide. He fails and goes mad. He is taken to the County Asylum.
It was apparently customary, or at least not unusual, at that time for visitors to be shown round the asylum as an alternative to visiting, for instance, the zoo. One afternoon the chaplain was showing a group of young ladies over the place. The girls were three in number, young and fashionably dressed. They talked without ceasing in an empty-headed stream of girlish chatter. They were the daughters of a great iron-founder in the district and would each have a hundred thousand pounds.
"’How sweet of you, Mr Pritchard!’ said one of the girls, ‘to show us everything. It’s awfully thrilling.’ The party ‘went laughing through the long spotless corridors, peeping into the bright, airy living rooms where bodies without brains were mumbling and singing to each other.’"
"’Did ye show the young ladies Schuabe?’ said the doctor to the chaplain.
"’Bless my soul!’ he replied, ‘I must be going mad myself. I’d almost forgotten to show you Schuabe!’
"’Who is Schuabe?’ said the youngest of the sisters, a girl just fresh from school at St Leonards.
"’Oh Maisie!’ said the eldest. ‘Surely you remember … He was the Manchester millionaire who went mad after trying to blow up the tomb of Christ. I think that was it. It was in all the papers. A young clergyman found out what he had been trying to do …’
"’Everyone likes to have a look at this patient,’ said the doctor. ‘He has a little sleeping room of his own and a special attendant. His money was all confiscated by the Government, but they allow two hundred a year for him. Otherwise he would be among the paupers.’
"The girls giggled with pleasurable anticipation. The doctor un¬ locked a door. The party entered a fairly large room, simply furnished … On a bed lay the idiot. He had grown very fat and looked healthy. The features were all coarsened, but the hair re¬ tained its colour of dark red. He was sleeping.
"’Now, Miss Clegg, ye’d never think that made such a stir in the world but five years since. But there he lies. He always eats as much as he can, and goes to sleep after the meal.’
" ‘He’s waking up now, sir. Here, Mr Schuabe, some ladies have come to see you.’ It got up with a foolish grin and began some ungainly capers.
" ‘Thank you so much. Mr Pritchard,’ the girls said as they left the building. ‘We’ve enjoyed ourselves so much.’
"’I like the little man with his tongue hanging out the best, said one.
"’Oh Mabel, you’ve no sense of humour. That Schuabe creature was the funniest of all.’"
And thus, with the blessing of the Bishops of London and Exeter, we leave a book highly recommended by them to the British public and by that public enthusiastically received.
There is, I suppose, a difference between those rich girls giggling so heartily at the lunatics, and the hangers and torturers of our own day. The differences are indeed obvious and can be studied in laws and by-laws. Perhaps still more interesting to study would be the similarities, not always obvious, between our own times and the days when it was dark.
From Claud Cockburn’s Bestseller, published 1972.
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The German, and indeed most of the Western, intelligentsia were incredulous when Hitler set out to prove that Wall Street and the communists, all run by Jews, were in essence the same people pursuing identical objectives. For a dangerously long time the intelligentsia simply refused to believe that so preposterous a notion could deceive anyone but the infantile or the senile. Much too late, this same intelligentsia were forced to realize that millions of people could be brought to believe not only that, but also to believe, as the Nazi Press told them to during the Second World War, that President Roosevelt was a Jew whose real name was Rosenfeld, and was acting in collaboration with communists (whose leader’s first name was Joseph) to bring about the destruction of Western society.
With this fairly recent phenomenon in mind, we can better understand the credibility of Constantine Schuabe, and the impact of When It Was Dark. Enter (in London) villain Number Two, or the Second Murderer. This is Robert Llwellyn, internationally famous savant in charge of the Palestinian section of the British Museum. He is described as being ‘that almost inhuman phenomenon, a sensualist with a soul’. In his room at the Museum he has just received the news that he is about to be knighted for services rendered to science, archaeology, scriptural knowledge and so on. But he too has troubles of a kind with which it might be difficult for, say, an Oxford don of the 1970s to identify. He is leading a double life.
"The lofty scientific world of which he was an ornament, had no points of contact with that other and unspeakable half life. Rumours had been bruited, things said in secret by envious and less distinguished men, but they had never harmed him … What did it matter if smaller people with forked tongues hissed horrors of his private life? The other circles – the lost slaves of pleasure – knew him well and were content."
What then were the horrors so hissed? They consisted in the fact that, although a married man, he kept a mistress. And this mistress was a music-hall actress so well known that her picture appeared on cigarette cards. He kept her in Bloomsbury Court Mansions. One does not today associate Bloomsbury with luxurious vice, but that, in 1903, was what it meant. The room of
"one of London’s popular favourites, Miss Gertrude Hunt, reeked with a well-known perfume, an evil, sickly smell of ripe lilies and the acrid smoke of Egyptian tobacco … The room would have struck an ordinary visitor with a sense of nausea almost like a physical blow. There was something sordidly shameless about it. The vulgarest and
most material of Circes held sway among all this gaudy and lavish disorder. The most sober-minded and innocent-minded man, brought suddenly into such a place, would have known it instantly for what it was and turned to fly as from a pestilence."
It should be said here that despite a Jewish look, a vulgarly cockney accent (in which she sings with enormous success a song called The Coon of Coons’) and her sexual immorality, she turns up trumps in the end, pushed along by Basil Gortre and the knowledge that she is soon going to die of an incurable ‘internal disease’.
Just before venturing into this den in Bloomsbury, we are offered a vignette of Prof. Llwellyn’s home life. Here again, the point is that Guy Thorne’s public of 1903 obviously found the picture quite credible. So much so, in fact, that the author does not find it necessary to suggest that there was anything more than a little unusual about it. In the 1970S the thing would take a good deal of explaining, and the characters concerned would have to be represented as fugitives from a sanatorium. How otherwise account for the fact that Mrs Llwellyn does not divorce the Professor?
"They had been married for fifteen years. For fourteen of them he had hardly ever spoken to her except in anger at some household accident. On her own private income of six hundred a year she had to do what she could to keep the house going. Llwellyn never gave her anything of the thousand a year which was his salary at the Museum, and the greater sums he earned by his salary outside it. She knew no one. The Professor went into none but official society, and indeed but few of his colleagues knew that he was a married man. He treated the house as an hotel, sleeping there occasionally, breakfasting and dressing. His private rooms were the only habitable part of the house. All the rest was old, faded and without comfort. Mrs Llwellyn spent most of her life with the two servants in the kitchen. She always swept and tidied her husband’s rooms herself. That after-noon she had built and coaxed the fire with her own hands. She slept in a small room at the top of the house, next to the maids, for company. This was her life."
Our sensualist with a soul, on arrival at Bloomsbury Court
Mansions, is so troubled that, despite having eaten nothing but a snack of soup, fish and cheese, he is unable to eat the supper prepared for him by the vulgar and material Circe. The reason for this trouble is that he is being sexually blackmailed by Miss Hunt and financially blackmailed by the man Schuabe, now resident at the Hotel Cecil, next door to the Savoy, overlooking the Thames, and arranging for getting rid of Christianity and all that that implies.
Schuabe has written to the Professor demanding that he pay back loans from Schuabe of which ‘the principal and interest now total the sum of fourteen thousand pounds’.
The man Schuabe writes:
"It would be superfluous to point out to you what bankruptcy would mean to you in your position. Ruin would be the only word. And it would be no ordinary bankruptcy. I have by no means an uncertain idea where these large sums have gone, and my knowledge can hardly fail to be shared by others in London Society. [I.e. He will tell London Society about Gertrude Hunt.]
"I have still a chance to offer you, however, and perhaps you will find me by no means the tyrant you think. There are certain services which you can do me, and which, if you fall in with my views, will not only wipe off the few thousands of your indebtedness, but will provide you with a capital sum which will place you above the necessity for any such financial manoeuvres in the future as your -shall I say infatuation – has led you to resort to in the past. If you care to lunch with me in my rooms at the Hotel Cecil at two o’clock the day after tomorrow – Friday-we may discuss your affairs quietly. If not then I must refer you to my solicitors entirely. Yours sincerely, Constantine Schuabe.
So what is our man Schuabe going to get for his many thousand pieces of gold ? Simply this: on grounds of alleged ill-health the Professor is to get one year’s leave of absence from the British Museum.
He will proceed to Jerusalem.
With his unparalleled skill and the help of an enormous bribe from Schuabe to a corruptible Greek called lonides, a man much esteemed by the Palestine Exploration Society, he will then forge, in a tomb just outside Jerusalem, a certain inscription.
The nature of this inscription? It is nothing less than a message from Joseph of Arimathea, admitting that he, Joseph, stole the body of Christ and hid it in this same tomb. So that when the disciples thought that Christ had risen from the dead, they were victims of a well-meant deception by Joseph of Arimathea. There had been no Resurrection. The body had merely been secretly transferred from one tomb to another. The entire Christian world had been the victim of this hoax.
They did not have radium tests in those days, capable of deciphering the antiquity or otherwise of such an inscription or of ‘the slight mould on the stone slab which may or may not be’ (as the Daily Wire was to announce later) ‘that of a decomposed body’. All the same, it certainly took fifty thousand pounds’ worth of the Professor’s skill to fake the thing so that it was going, a bit later, to fool all the greatest Palestinian experts in the world, including archaeologist Hands.
For, obviously enough, it was not going to be Llwellyn who would make the historic discovery. The thing that was going to change the history of the world would come to light as a result of the honest exploratory labours of honest men like Hands.
And so, in the fullness of time and exactly in accordance with the malign calculation of Devil-man Schuabe, it came to pass. It is naturally difficult in a summary to do any kind of justice to Guy Thorne’s capacity for the creation of suspense. To convey it one must quote at some length the chapter in which the news of the supposed discovery in Jerusalem reaches London. Harold Spence, you will remember, is a leader-writer for the Daily Wire. One of his room-mates, Cyril Hands, is agent of the Palestine Exploration Society. Hands has recently left for Palestine on the business of the Society. The reader is of course already aware of the nature and the successful carrying out of the tremendous plot concocted by Schuabe and Sir Robert Llwellyn, but nobody else in the civilized world is aware of the fearful time-bomb ticking away beneath them. With admirable skill Thorne delays the final revelation with what might otherwise be a pedestrian account of a day in the life of Harold Spence.
"One Wednesday – he remembered the day afterwards – Spence woke about midday. He had been late at the office the night before and afterwards had gone to a club, not going to bed till after four, He heard the ‘laundress’ [charwoman] moving about the chambers preparing his breakfast. He shouted to her and in a minute or two she came in with his letters and a cup of tea. She went to the window and pulled up the blind, letting a dreary grey-yellow December light into the room .’Nasty day, Mrs Buscall?’ he said, sipping his tea. ‘It is so, sir,’ the woman said, a lean kindly-faced London drudge, caught in Drury Lane. ‘Gives me a frog in my throat all the time, this fog does … letter from Mr Cyril, I see, sir,’ she remarked. Mrs Buscall loved the archaeologist with more strenuousness than her other two charges: the unusual and mysterious has a real fascination for a certain type of uneducated Cockney brain. Hands’s rare sojourns at the chambers, the Eastern dresses and pictures in his room, his strange and perilous life, as she considered it, in the veritable Bible land where Satan actually roamed the desert in the form of a lion seeking whom he might devour, all these stimulated her crude imagination and brought colour into the dreary purlieus of Drury Lane. Most of the women around Mrs Buscall drank gin. The doings of Cyril Hands were sufficient tonic for her.
"Spence glanced at the bulky package with the Turkish stamps and peculiar aroma, which the London fog had not yet killed, of ships and alien sounds. Hands was a good correspondent. Sometimes he sent general articles on the work he was doing, not too technical, and Ommaney, the editor of Spence’s paper, used and paid well for them.
"But on this morning Spence did not feel inclined to open the packet. It could wait. He was not in the humour for it now. It would be too tantalizing to read of those deep skies like a hard hollow turquoise, of the flaming white sun, the white mosque and minarets throwing purple shadows round the cypresses and olives After breakfast, the lunchtime of most of the world, he found it impossible to settle down to anything. He was not due at the office that night and the long hours without the excitement of his work stretched rather hopelessly before him. He thought of paying calls in the various parts of the West End where he had friends whom he had rather neglected of late. But he dismissed that idea
when it came, for he did not feel as if he could make himself very agreeable to anyone. He half thought of running down to Brighton, fighting the cold bracing sea winds on the lawns at Hove and returning the next day. He was certainly out of sorts – liverish, no doubt – and the solution to his difficulties presented itself to him in the project of a Turkish bath. He put his correspondence into the pocket of his overcoat to be read at leisure and drove to a Ham-mam in Jermyn Street. The physical warmth, the silence, the dim lights and oriental decorations induced a supreme sense of comfort and bien etre. It brought Constantinople back to him in vague reverie.
"Perhaps, he thought, the Turkish bath in London is the only easy way to obtain a sudden and absolute change of environment. Nothing else brings detachment so readily, so instinct with change and the unusual. In the delightful languor he passed from one dim chamber to another, lying prone in the great heat which surrounded him like a cloak. Then the vigorous kneading and massage, the gradual toning and renovating of each joint and muscle till he stood drenched in aromatic foam, a new fresh physical personality … at four a slippered attendant brought him a sole and a bottle of yellow wine and after the light meal he fell once more into a placid restorative sleep.
"And all the while the letter from Jerusalem was in his overcoat pocket, forgotten, hung in the entrance hall. The thing which was to alter the lives of thousands and tens of thousands, that was to bring a cloud over England more dark and menacing than it had ever known, lay there with its stupendous message, its relentless influence, while outside the church bells all over London were tolling for Evensong. At length, as night was falling, Spence went out into the lighted streets with their sudden roar of welcome. He was immensely refreshed, his thoughts moved quickly and well, depression had left him and the activity of his brain was unceasing. He turned into St James’s Street where his club was, intending to find somebody who would come to a music-hall with him. There was no one he knew intimately in the smoking room but soon after he arrived Lambert, one of the deputy curators from the British Museum, came in. Spence and Lambert had been at Marlborough together, Spence asked Lambert, who was in evening dress, to be his companion. ‘Sorry, I can’t, old man,’ he answered, ‘I’ve got to dine with my uncle. Sir Michael. It’s a bore of course but it’s policy. The place will be full of High Church bishops and minor Cabinet ministers and people of that sort. I only hope old Ripon will be there, he’s my uncle’s tame vicar you know, uncle runs an expensive church like some men run a theatre, for he’s always bright and amusing … sorry I can’t come, awful bore. I’ve had a tiring day too and a ballet would be refreshing. The governor’s been in a state of filthy irritation and nerves for the last fortnight.’
" ‘Sir Robert Llwellyn, isn’t it?’
"’Yes, he’s my chief and a very good fellow too as a rule. He went away for several months, you know, travelled abroad for his health. [The reader of course is aware of the real purpose of Sir Robert's excursion.] When he first came back three months ago he looked as fit as a fiddle and seemed awfully pleased with himself all round. But lately he’s been decidedly off colour. He seems worried about something, does hardly any work and he always seems waiting and looking out for a coming event. He bothers me out of my life, always coming into my room and talking about nothing, or speculating upon the possibility of all sorts of new discoveries which will upset everyone’s theories.’
"’I met him in Dieppe in the Spring. He seemed all right then, just at the beginning of his leave.’
"’Well, he’s certainly not that now, worse luck, and confound him. He interferes with my work no end.’
"It was after seven o’clock. Spence wasn’t hungry yet, the light meal in the Hammam had satisfied him. He resolved to go to the Empire alone, not because the idea of going seemed very attractive but because he had planned it and could substitute no other way of spending the evening for the first determination. So about nine o’clock he strolled into the huge garish music hall. He went into the Empire and already his contentment was beginning to die away again. The day seemed a day of trivialities, a sordid uneventful day of London gloom which he had vainly tried to disperse with little futile rockets of amusement. He sat down in a stall and watched a clever juggler doing wonderful things with billiard balls. After the juggler a coarsely handsome Spanish girl came upon the stage – he remembered her at La Scala in Paris. She was said to be one of the beauties of Europe and a King’s favourite.
"After the Spanish woman there were two men, ‘Brothers’ someone. One was disguised as a donkey, the other as a tramp and together they did laughable things.
"With a sigh he went upstairs and moved slowly through the thronged promenade. The hard faces of the men and women repelled him. One elderly Jewish-looking person reminded him of a great grey slug. He turned into the American Bar at one extremity of the horseshoe. It was early yet and the big room pleasantly cool was quite empty. A man brought him a long particoloured drink. He felt the pressure of the packet in his pocket. It was Cyril Hands’s letter he found as he took it out. He thought of young Lambert at the club, a friend of Hands and fellow worker in the same field, and languidly opened the letter.
"Two women came in and sat at a table not far from him as he began to read. He was the only man in the place and they regarded him with a tense conscious interest. They saw him open a bulky envelope with a careless manner. He would look up soon, they expected.
"But as they watched they saw a sudden swift contraction of the brows, a momentous convulsion of every feature. His head bent lower towards the manuscript. They saw that he became very pale.
"In a minute or two what had at first seemed a singular paleness became a frightful ashen colour. That Johnny’s going to be ill,’ one of the women said to another. As she spoke they saw the face change. A lurid excitement burst out upon it like a flame. The eyes glowed, the mouth settled into swift purpose.
"Spence took up his hat and left the room with quick decided steps. He threaded his way through the crowd round the circle, like a bed of orchids surrounded by heavy poisonous scents, and almost ran into the street. A cab was waiting. He got into it and inspired by his words and appearance the man drove furiously down dark Garrick Street and the blazing Strand towards the offices of the Daily Wire. The great building of dressed stone which stood in the middle of Fleet Street was dark. The advertisement hall and business offices were closed. The journalist turned down a long corridor with doors on either side … at the extreme end he opened a door and passing round a red baize screen flung himself in on Ommaney’s room, the centre of the great web of brains and machinery which daily gave the Wire to the world. Ommaney’s room was very large, warm and bright – it was also extremely tidy. The writing table had little on it save the great blotting pad and an inkstand, the books on chairs and shelves were neatly arranged … Ommaney was slim and pale, carefully dressed and of medium height. He did not look very old. His moustache was golden and carefully tended, his pale honey-coloured hair waved over a high white forehead.
"’I shall want an hour,’ Spenre said. ‘I’ve just got what may be the most stupendous news any newspaper has ever published.’
"The editor looked up quickly. A flash of interest passed over his pale immobile face and was gone. He knew that if Spence spoke like this the occasion was momentous. He looked at his watch. ‘Is it news for tonight’s paper?’ he said. ‘No,’ answered Spence, ‘I’m the only man in England I think who has it yet. We shall gain nothing by printing tonight but we must settle our course of action at once. That won’t wait. You’ll understand when I explain …’ Spence took a chair opposite. He seemed dazed. He was trembling with excitement. His face was pale with it, yet above and beyond this agitation there was almost fear in his eyes.
"’It’s a discovery in Palestine – at Jerusalem,’ he said in a low vibrating voice, spreading out the thin crackling sheets of foreign notepaper on his knee and arranging them in order. ‘You know Cyril Hands, the agent of the Palestine Exploring Fund?’ ‘Yes, quite well by reputation,’ said Ommaney, ‘and I’ve met him once or twice. Very sound man.’ ‘These papers are from him. They seem to be of tremendous importance, of a significance that I can hardly grasp yet.’ ‘What is the nature of them?’ asked the editor, rising from his chair, powerfully affected in his turn by Spence’s manner. Harold put his hand up to his throat, pulling at his collar, the apple moved up and down convulsively.
"’The tomb!’ Spence gasped. ‘The Holy Tomb!’
"’What do you mean?’ asked Ommaney. ‘Another supposed burial place of Christ – like The Times business when they found the Gordon tomb, and Canon MacColl wrote such a lot?’
"His face fell a little. This, though interesting enough and fine news copy, was less than he hoped.
"’No, no,’ cried Spence, getting his voice back at last and speaking like a man in acute physical pain, "A new tomb has been found, there is an inscription in Greek, written by Joseph of Arimathea, and there are other traces.’
"His voice failed him. ‘Go on, man, go on,’ said the editor.
"’The inscription – tells that – Joseph took the body of Jesus -from his own garden tomb – he hid it in this place – the disciples never knew – it is a confession.’
"Ommaney was as white as Spence now. ‘There are other contributory proofs; Spence continued. Hands says that it is certain. All the details are here, read -’
"Ommaney stared fixedly at his lieutenant.
"’Then if this is true; he whispered, ‘it means?’
"’THAT CHRIST NEVER ROSE FROM THE DEAD. THAT CHRISTIANITY IS ALL A LIE.’
"Spence slipped back in his chair a little and fainted."
After Spence has been partially revived with brandy the editor soliloquizes aloud on the situation.
"’Of course I and you are hardly competent to judge of the value of this communication. To me, speaking as a layman, it seems extremely clear. But we must of course see a specialist before publishing anything. If this news is true, and I will give all I am worth if it were not, though I am no Christian, of course you realize that the future history of the world is changed. I hold in my hand something that will come to millions and millions of people as an utter extinction of hope and light. It’s impossible to say what will happen. Moral law will be abrogated for a time. The whole fabric of society will fall into ruin at once until it can adjust itself to the new state of things There will be war all over the world; crime will cover England like a cloud …’ His voice faltered as the terrible picture grew in his brain. Both of them felt that mere words were utterly unable to express the horrors which they saw dawning."