Chapter Four of ‘Perseus Corbett and the Forbidden Valley’

See Chapter One here, Chapter Two here, and Chapter Three here

Chapter Four
The Unexpected Outcome of a Museum Gala

“Well, we’ve gone and done it, young fellah my lad.”
-Lord John Roxton, The Lost World

On the following evening, Perseus found himself at the Natural History Museum, dressed in a rented suit and tails, with a ticket in hand that had cost almost as much, scanning the crowed of richly dressed guests the way a lion scans a herd of zebras, looking for that one who stands out as a viable target.

Martin had outdone himself. The gala was being held in honor of an expedition to Borneo that had returned in triumph with several new species of insects, reptiles, and birds, one of which – dubbed the silver eagle for its sticking feathers and nocturnal habits – had made rather a sensation. The reception was held in the central hall of the museum, with specimens from the expedition on triumphal display at temporary stands between the pillars of the gothic space (the live specimen of the silver eagle was perched in a large cage in the center of the hall, shooting warning looks at anyone who ventured too close). Virtually all the most important and influential zoological men of the Royal Academy and the major universities were there, along with their patrons, and all, no doubt, were eager for a ‘silver eagle’ of their own. Here if anywhere, he would find what he sought.

He got some champagne and, putting on his best winning manner, the one that he had used to flirt with tourists when he had worked on a riverboat, he selected the elderly Lord Fitzgibbons and his wife (Martin had provided him a list of notable people who would be present) and began making small talk. They were charmed, particularly Lady Fitzgibbon, and a few anecdotes and compliments were enough to establish a rapport.

But just as he was laying the foundations for his attack, there was a momentary lull in the chatter around him and a voice reached his ears from across the hall.

“Tell me, Lady Elizabeth, will you be making another donation to the museum this year?”

That name. Surely not…

In a flash, Perseus forgot everything and whipped around. His eyes found her at once, standing beside the diplodocus skeleton, not twenty feet away from him.

The same, and yet not the same. The skinny, rambunctious girl, all arms and legs, covered in freckles and insect bites, had become a tall, elegant woman; grace and refinement in every limb. The tangled red hair was now smooth and done up in a kind of crown, like a halo of flame. The dirty, torn frocks had been replaced by a green dress trimmed in gold which emphasized her fiery hair, as well as her firm and blooming figure. Her face was much as it had been, yet somehow more. Beautiful, certainly; it was a face made for the open air, for the adoring, obedient eyes of dogs and horses. An open, kind face that looked as though it would be quick to laughter.

But the eyes—the bright, hazel-green eyes, sparkling with life—those hadn’t changed.

Martin hadn’t said a word…perhaps she was a late addition to the guest list? Or had he deliberately kept quiet to ensure Perseus ran into her. He might have to have words with him later.

“I suspect I shall,” Elizabeth was saying without interest. “I always find human knowledge a good investment.”

“I just wondered,” said the other woman, whom Perseus had barely noticed. “As I’d heard you’d purchased yourself a new horse.”

“Apparently to my shame, I have money for both,” said Elizabeth, coloring slightly. “Horses needs homes just like anyone else.”

Perseus disengaged himself from his new acquaintances without noticing what he said and crossed the room.

“Of course,” said the other, making a note. She was evidently a reporter of some kind.

“Oh, bother, you’re going to make that sound horrible, aren’t you? ‘Lady Elizabeth says that she sees people on a level with horses.’”

“That is one possible interpretation of what you said,” the reporter replied with a smile like vinegar. “After all, I can’t help notice that your donations tend to be, how shall I put it? Abstract. Why not give to something more practical, if you really want to put your money to good use?”

“What would you suggest?” asked Elizabeth.

“Say, the League of Women voters? Or the Peace Pledge Union? Something for the immediate benefit of mankind.” 

“Personally,” said Perseus, sliding into the conversation. “I don’t think people are on a level with horses. I think, taking all in all, that horses are far preferable. Particularly compared with the League of Women Voters.”

Elizabeth laughed, looking at him with grateful surprise.

“And, who are you, sir?” asked the reporter.

“Only a barbarian from beyond the sea,” he said with a bow. “Now if you don’t mind, I should like to borrow Lady Elizabeth for a moment.”

Elizabeth nodded at the woman with elaborate politeness and allowed Perseus to draw her aside.

“Thank you for coming to my rescue,” she said. “I’d a hundred times prefer to be abducted by barbarians than preyed upon by reporters.”

“Does she do it so often?”

“Always,” said Elizabeth. “That’s Sarah Manning, society writer for the Guardian. Rather hot on the subject of the aristocracy and how it is ‘a parasitical tumor upon British society,’ I believe is how she put it. I suppose tomorrow I’ll receive a double-dose of venom for your gallantry, but at least I can enjoy the look on her face tonight, and so for that I thank you, Sir Barbarian.”

“My pleasure, your ladyship,” he answered with a bow.

“I didn’t catch your name,” she said. She tilted her head, scrutinizing him closely. “And…pardon me, but have we met before?”

“We have,” he said. “And I am glad to see that at least the sea monster hasn’t gotten you yet.”

Her hazel eyes widened and her jaw dropped. For a moment, all her good breeding and elegant habits were lost in astonishment.

“Perseus?” she said. “Perseus Corbett? I…my goodness, I wouldn’t have recognized you! You have…well, you’ve grown!”

“So have you,” he said. “I suppose it happens over fourteen years, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, yes it does,” she stammered, hardly thinking what she was saying. “But where on Earth have you been? The last I heard you’d gone off to sea.”

“You heard of that?” he said, surprised.

“Of course. I wrote to ask you to come for Christmas, but your mother said you’d gone.”

“Oh,” he said. He felt thrown by the news; it had never occurred to him that she would do such a thing. “I thought your mother didn’t like me.”

“She didn’t frightfully, but I talked her into it. I was so disappointed to find out you weren’t coming.”    

“I…I’m afraid I had to start earning my fortune,” he said.

“Oh, yes,” she said. She seemed suddenly embarrassed and dropped her eyes, fingering her dress. “I mean, of course I realize that now.”

As they spoke, he thought something else about her had changed. The quickness, the colt-like energy that had marked her every move and expression in the past was gone. She seemed…slower. Tireder. The spirited colt had been reined. 

There was a somewhat uncomfortable pause. The things he really wanted to say to her, the things he wanted to ask her, couldn’t be said. He was trying to get a surreptitious look at her left hand, but she was holding them so that he couldn’t see. They were rescued by Lord and Lady Fitzgibbon.

“Lady Elizabeth! Do you know Mr. Corbett?” his Lordship asked.

“Oh, yes, we go way back,” said Elizabeth.

“Old friends,” said Perseus, watching to see what effect that might have on her. She gave no sign of either approval or disapproval.

“I am surprised you never mentioned him!” said her Ladyship. “Such a charming man.”

Was it his imagination, or was there a twinkle in Lady Fitzgibbon’s eyes?

“It’s been some time since we’ve seen each other,” Elizabeth answered.

“That certainly explains your hasty departure, Mr. Corbett,” said his Lordship with a smile. “Say no more! We shall leave you to your bewitching companion.”

They bowed and drifted off.

“When did you become acquainted with them?” she asked

“About five minutes ago.”

“Quick work. You seem to have made your fortune after all, haven’t you?”

“Looks can be deceiving,” he said, glancing down at his suit. “As a matter of fact I’m here on business.”

“How tiresome,” she said. “But tell me, what sort of business is it that you do? Nothing in London, surely.”

“Not usually, no,” he said with a grin. “I have done…well, quite a lot. I was a sailor during the Great War, and a soldier in one or two little ones. I ran a tour boat on the Nile, I tried my hand at ranching for a bit, I’ve hunted and trekked through most of the odd places of the world, and now I’m dabbling in a bit of field science.”

“My goodness! Then you’ve actually done it, haven’t you?” she exclaimed. Her lovely hazel eyes were wide with wonder, and she looked at him the way a child looks at a particularly good magician. “I mean, all those things we talked about as children that we wanted to do.”

“I suppose I have,” he said. “But I’m sure you’ve done some as well, haven’t you?”

“No,” she said. “No, I’m afraid I’ve turned into quite the boring, stay at home sort; the most adventure I have is the occasional hunting trip or riding party. And never farther abroad than Ireland.”

“Really?” he said in genuine surprise. “Has something happened to Sangral?”

“Oh, no; it’s taking in quite as much money as ever, and I’ve made a bit of an investment or two that have paid off handsomely. It isn’t want of resources; more want of opportunity.”

“I see,” he said, though he didn’t. “And how is the old place?”

“Quite the same as ever,” she said. “Tredwell is still treading about, your uncle is still keeping the grounds lovely. Mother sits home in her conservatory most of the time. And…and I’m afraid Father died some years ago; just after the war, in fact.”

“Did he? I am very sorry to hear that,” said Perseus. “I always liked him.”

“Yes, it was rather horrible,” she said in a dull kind of voice that sounded jarring coming from her. “Especially coming just then when we were all thinking we’d gotten through it.”

“Was he ill?”

“No, it was a motorcar. Some drunken fool ran him down.”

She cleared her throat and rallied herself.

“But never mind that. No help for it. Anyway, I don’t suppose you want to waste time hearing all my dreary news. And most of it is dreary; as I say, I’ve turned out frightfully boring.”

“It can’t all be dreary,” he said. “Come now; no good news?”

He braced himself as she considered the question.

“Well, as you heard, I have some charming horses,” she said. “And I have had a bit of a lark funding expeditions to interesting places. I don’t go myself, but at least I hear amusing stories from the people do. As a matter of fact, I put a bit of money toward this trip, though don’t let Ms. Manning hear that; she did a piece last year on how I only do it to keep my name in the papers. As if I want people to write horrible things about me! But there I go being dreary again, and it’s really too dull for me to recite that sort of thing when I want to hear more about you. Oh! do you still have that medal I gave you?”

“Of course!” he said smiling to cover the stab of guilt in his stomach. “I keep it very safe.”

“That’s a relief! I was just thinking that, with your running all over the world, getting into adventures, and being in the war and all it was…not that I’m suggesting you would be reckless with it, just that it is very precious and all.”

“Quite, quite,” he said, hoping she would change the subject. At the same time he noted the nervous, embarrassed edge to the question, with her perceived need to apologize for asking. That again wasn’t like her. Yes, she was definitely less sure of herself than she had been. He wondered what had brought the change.

“So, what is this business you’re here about?” she asked after another somewhat embarrassed pause. 

“Oh, that,” he said. “That is…a little complicated.”

He really didn’t want to have to lie to Elizabeth of all people. Yet here was an opportunity that he could not possibly pass by. He made up his mind in an instant. 

“The long and short of it is,” he said, lowering his voice, “that I’m hoping to get a little expedition together to go take a look at a backwater of the Amazon. I’ve happened to hear rumors of there being unique species in that region. I was rather hopping to convince one of these scientists to take an interest in it.”  

“Oh, is that all!” she said. “Why the whispering, then? I might be able to help you there. I know most of these scientist fellows. And if you need money…”

“I couldn’t ask you to do that!” he said.

“Whyever not?” she said. “I told you, it’s practically a hobby of mine, and I’d just as soon fund something for you as for a stranger.”

“Well…” he said, hesitantly. “I certainly could use the help, I won’t deny; I haven’t been in England since the war.”

“Come along then; we’ll hash it all out,” she said. “But not here; don’t suppose you want to talk with all these people about.”

He shrugged, nodded, and allowed her to lead him away.

“Damn, there’s another reporter; we’ll go this way…”

After a few more turns and detours to avoid certain guests, she had led him out of the central hall and down the corridors. After checking one or two chambers and finding them occupied by other guests who had sought to escape the main party, she at last deposited him in the hall of reptiles beside a case of various snakes.

“Perfect,” she said. “Now wait here a moment; I think I know just the man you want to see…”

She disappeared, leaving Perseus to try to gather his scattered thoughts. A few minutes later, she returned trailing a thin, elderly man behind her.

“Professor Julius Illingworth, may I present my old friend, Mr. Perseus Corbett.

During one of his many adventures, Perseus Corbett had spent some time in a very old house in the southern United States. One room had held numerous taxidermized specimens of deer, bear, and other creatures, but the house had been abandoned for so long that they had dried out and begun to fall in upon themselves.

Professor Illingworth reminded him forcibly of one of those creatures.

He was tall and very thin, with sunken cheeks and grey hair that was rapidly losing its war with the inevitable. He had a drooping kind of mustache and deep-set grey eyes with heavy eyelids that made him look a bit like an old dog. His grey suit appeared a trifle too large for him, as though it had been tailored for him when he had been more filled out and healthy. But the gaze that met his was sharp and cunning, and Perseus guessed that, however desiccated the man may be, he had lost none of his wits. 

“How do you do, sir?” he said, offering a cadaverous hand as he surveyed Perseus with his cold blue eyes. Perseus could almost feel the old man’s gaze as it swept over his tan, his scars, and took the measure of his frame. “I understand that you have some sort of proposition.”

“I do, sir,” he answered. “I’m by way of being an amateur naturalist myself; knocked around the world quite a bit…”

“Have you?” Illingworth interrupted. “Then of course you would have no trouble recognizing that specimen?” He indicated one of the taxidermied snakes under the glass, putting his hand over the label.

“Naturally,” said Perseus smoothly. “Kanburi pit viper. Lovely creature, isn’t it?”

“Magnificent,” said Illingworth in a mechanical tone. “And are you familiar with its cousin, the Stejneger viper?”

“I have made its acquaintance, yes,” said Perseus. “Not quite so attractive as this fellow.”

“Not at all. And you must then have encountered the Carneddau viper in your travels?”

Perseus sensed the trap.

“I have not, I am afraid, nor have I read of that species,” he said. “Some new discovery of your own, perhaps? The name suggests a Welsh variant.”

Illingworth smiled, a thin smile that did not reach his eyes.

“It has been some years since I have been actively involved in field work,” he said. “There is no such creature, to the best of my knowledge. 

“Ah, I see,” said Perseus. “You were attempting to trip me up? To show me as a fraud and imposter?”

“It has been known to happen,” said Illingworth. “Particularly where…” he glanced at Elizabeth. “Money is concerned.”

“So it has. I could tell you a fair few stories from my travels.”

“I am sure you could,” said Illingworth in a dry tone. “Now, what is this proposal of yours?”

“As I was saying, I have been around the world quite a lot. I was in Portugal a short time back where I chanced to meet a retired fellow from the Brazilian army. Left when the empire was overthrown. Anyway, he had done a deal of work in the Amazon; helped get the telegraph started. Living out in the wilds, he got to know the locals quite well, and they told him tales of a certain tributary, way back in the beyond of beyond, supposedly the haunt of monsters. One day he got curious and paid some of the fellows to show him the way. Well, he told me, after a long journey, they started seeing queer things; things he hadn’t seen anywhere else in the jungle.”

“Such as what?” asked Illingworth.

“He had a bit of trouble describing them to me,” said Perseus. “He was a bit far gone, I’ll admit; stumbled a little in his words, but I gather there were great snakes and huge birds, like the moa, you know. And a variety of large mammalian life; like bears, he said.”

“In the jungle?”

“Quite, that is what I thought.”

“What was your friends’ name, may I ask?”

“He said that it was Colonel Torres,” said Perseus. “Though I confess, from things he let drop, I suspect that was an alias. He kept talking of enemies.”  

“This is all very entertaining,” said Illingworth, in a tone that suggested he had never been entertained in his life. “But I still do not grasp what you want from us?”

“I propose an expedition, sir, to travel up this river and document its wildlife.”

“In fact, you wish us to pay you to travel to the Amazon based on the word of a man you yourself describe as a paranoid drunkard, and who, for all I can see, may not even exist?”

“Not at all!” said Perseus. “I want you to send some of your own people to the Amazon, and I offer my services as a guide.”

“It comes to much the same thing, does it not?” asked Illingworth.

“Indeed,” said Perseus with a bow. “You are, professor, a very clever man, I can see. You’ve got me in a nice little corner here. How can I prove my good faith on such a matter? I have no references in this country, save Lady Elizabeth here, and while I’m sure no man could doubt her good will or good sense, what can she really tell you on this matter when this is the first she is hearing of it as well? If I were to summon my partner to vouch for my story, you would only say that he is as much a crook as myself. What, then, do you suggest I do?”

“What indeed?” asked Illingworth.   

“What are you going to do?” asked Elizabeth. She was watching him with keen interest; like a child watching for the magician to pull his trick.

“Nothing simpler,” he answered. “I will venture to forego all payment until the successful completion of the expedition. ‘Satisfaction guaranteed or services free’. How will that do?”  

Elizabeth’s face broke into a radiant grin that nearly upset Perseus’s air of nonchalance.

“That, I should say, will be most satisfactory,” she said. “You might have had a career in advertising.”

Illingworth, however, though he looked surprised, did not look satisfied.

“May I ask, sir, why this is so important to you?”

Perseus tore his eyes off of Elizabeth to look at Illingworth.

“An adventure,” he said. “I am not particularly concerned with money, you see, but I do like a good adventure. This seems a cracking good one: the chance to explore one of the remaining really unknown places on Earth, to see things that few if any men have ever seen before. That is worth more to me than any gold.”

Illingworth surveyed him with dry skepticism.

“That may be so, sir, but I must say that I see no practical benefit to the museum in this proposal.”        

“No benefit?” Elizabeth exclaimed. “A truly unexplored and undocumented ecosystem?”

“In the first place, I have heard nothing to convince me that such a place exists,” said Illingworth. “In the second, I am sure there are many such places in the world today, but an institution such as ours has better things to do with its time and money than go hauling around the world looking for them on bare and uncertain evidence. It would be a great expense with a very small likelihood of a reasonable return. Much as I care for the advancement of knowledge, the discovery of a few new species of butterfly or lizard or even bird would not significantly impact our reputation or income one way or another, despite what the papers may say.”

Elizabeth looked at him with something of expression she might have given if she had caught him burning the Union Jack. Then a mischievous glint came into her eyes, and she shrugged her slender shoulders.

“Oh, well,” she said. “I can certainly respect your feelings on the matter. We shall simply have to ask elsewhere.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Personally, I am convinced of Mr. Corbett’s sincerity and good intentions, and I, for one, mean to see to it that this river is found and documented. And so, if the Natural History Museum is not interested, I will have to go elsewhere.”

Illingworth’s cold, dry manner slipped a little.

“Lady Elizabeth, you surely are not going to waste your money on such a…” he glanced at Perseus. “Uncertain venture?”

“Why not?” she said. “It is my money, after all, despite what some people seem to think. And I don’t know that it is so uncertain. At any rate, I intend to fund this expedition as soon as I find a scientific organization that is more concerned with advancing human knowledge than advancing its reputation.”

Perseus had to bite his lip to hide his grin. He tried not to look at either of them for fear he would lose composure entirely.

“I…as to that…” Illingworth spluttered.

Perseus could almost hear the thought process going on in the old man’s head; Elizabeth was an important patron of the museum. Whatever the costs of the expedition, losing her backing would be worse.

“Not only do I intend to fund it,” she went on. “I intend to accompany it.”

Perseus’s amusement vanished.

“You what?” he said.

She beamed at him.

“Yes, I think, since I am making an investment, I ought to see what my investment will buy for once.”

“Well, yes,” he said. “But, you know, it’s going to be quite dangerous.”

“Of course I realize that.”

She didn’t, he could tell. No one ever really did until they were there. He hadn’t expected this. It was one thing risking himself in a quest for gold; risking Elizabeth was something else entirely. Especially when he had lied about what exactly they were looking for a and why he was going. He felt hot, prickling shame in his stomach and a sensation like coming fever at the back of his throat.

But it was too late now; if he admitted the truth, there would be the end of it.  

“Much as I would love to have you along,” he said. “I strongly, strongly advise against it. We are going to be travelling in very rough country, and there will be jaguars and venomous snakes and insects and disease and many of the tribes are very unfriendly to outsiders, and that isn’t even considering the hardships and lack of privacy and…”

He stopped. The more he spoke, the brighter her eyes became, and he realized he was only making her more determined. He sighed. There was nothing for it.

“But if you really are determined,” he said. “Then I suppose I can’t stop you.”

“No, you can’t,” she answered. “Now all we have to do is to find another museum to provide the necessary scientific…”

“Oh, very well,” said Illingworth. “If you really mean to insist upon this venture, then I shall at least see to it that some good comes of it.”

“You will back the expedition, then?”

“Yes, yes, I shall,” he sighed. “I don’t know what it will do to my reputation, but so be it. When do you propose we start?”

“The sooner the better, I should think,” said Elizabeth.

“Very well. I shall have my assistant begin work on an itinerary. Now, where is that boy? Bill!”

***

While all this was going on, Martin had waited in the eastern wing of the museum, watching the party from the shadow of the portico with keen eyes for any sign of trouble. Underneath his stoic exterior, he was really rather anxious; he didn’t like Perseus’s scheme very much, and had only agreed to it because he hadn’t been able to think of a better plan. But if he could not prevent it, the only thing to do was to be on hand to try to ensure it came off.

At the same time, he had had an impish curiosity to see what happened when Perseus met Lady Elizabeth at last, as well as to see her for himself (it was partly for that reason that he had neglected to inform Perseus that she would be there). For though Perseus had never spoken much about her, Martin knew enough to guess at what he hadn’t said. He observed their conversation closely, unable to hear, but exercising his keen eye to judge their manners. Once they had disappeared into the west wing, Martin withdrew into the quiet corridors to think and to consider what he had observed.

He rather liked what he saw of Lady Elizabeth. She was certainly a beautiful young woman, and what was rarer, she knew how to dress well. She appeared to have perfectly good manners, but without affectation. A thoroughly charming young lady, he concluded, though he detected an air of anxiety about her that he didn’t quite like. He would have to keep an eye on that. 

For all his sophistication, Martin Halritter really had a very simple soul. He was the quintessential servant; no talk of salary or communal service interested him, nor was he any company man, but personal loyalty to one man or one family was the prime mover of his soul. Many there are for whom it is so, and at that time they were already beginning to suffer from the want of such opportunity in a rapidly changing world.

Perseus Corbett was no gentleman, at least not yet, but Martin had seen in him qualities that he thought would make for true nobility. And so, he had attached himself to him. They spoke as equals, and Martin never used the word ‘Sir,’ yet in his mind he was a valet and Perseus was his gentleman. There was between them that deep, abiding love that is sometimes called friendship, other times simply loyalty, but stands in a class of its own; the peculiar love of servant and master that in some ways is akin to that of father and son, save that neither could say which was which.

As he strolled softly up the hall, he became aware of voices coming from the hall of fossils. Curious, he drifted nearer to try to catch what was heard. A combination of the training of a good servant and many years spent in dark and dangerous places had given him the power of moving quite silently when he wished, and he did so now, gliding down the hall to see what was afoot.

Peering around the corner of the entry way, he beheld two young people standing amid the looming skeletons of ancient monsters. One was a big, amiable-looking young man with a thin mustache, the other a slender girl with long dark hair and an attractive, clever kind of face.

“Bill, this is ridiculous,” the girl was saying.  

“No, but really Frances, I do love you…”

“Yes, yes, you have told me many times, but why you dragged me in here to tell me it over again…”

“Why? You think it’s odd that I should want to talk to you alone?”

“No, of course not,” she said. “But why here?”

“So your father shouldn’t catch us.”

“Do you think I would mind terribly if he did?”

“Perhaps not, but I would, seeing as he’s my employer. And how could I marry you without a job?”

“Honestly, Bill, I don’t know that having you constantly worrying about what my father will think is much improvement over a life in the poorhouse.”

“I don’t worry about what he thinks, but I do respect him and…”

“And you are terrified of the idea that he may sack you,” she said.

“I am not terrified!”

“Is that why you haven’t told him yet? Is that why we’re meeting here, in secret, away from everyone else?”

“No, I…well…”

He stumbled, fumbling for a way to deny the obvious. She sighed and shook her head.

“Bill, I do love you, but I don’t know that I can go on like this. You simply have to tell him and take what comes. It’ll do you good.”

“It’s likely to do me in,” he said.

The girl lost patience.

“Perhaps it will, but I don’t know that I care to marry a man who cannot even risk a harsh word from his employer.”

“But Frances, darling…”

“No, listen to me Bill,” she said, recovering her temper. “A comfortable home and a sure income are not all. I need to know that I can rely on you.”

“Surely my judicious caution proves that.”

“No, Bill; what you call ‘judicious caution’ only shows that you can’t stand unpleasantness. You always try to take the easy, safe way, and that makes me wonder whether you will be there for me if it ever becomes difficult. Do you see?” 

He swallowed.

“I…no, you’re perfectly right. I shall prove my courage.”

At this point, Martin heard the quick, soft steps an approaching servant and silently ducked into an alcove as a waiter strode past him into the hall.

“Mr. Little?” he said. “Professor Illingworth is calling for you.”

“Oh, yes; of course,” said Bill, hastily stepping away from Frances. “I-I shall be there directly.”

The waiter bowed and withdrew.

“Will you tell him now?” she asked.

“I…perhaps,” he said. “We’ll see what he wants first.”

He hesitated, then kissed her in a sudden burst of passion before dashing off. Frances stood stunned for a moment, then sighed, shook her head, and followed. Martin remained where he was, stroking his long chin thoughtfully.

Young people were really very silly.

***

“There you are!” Illingworth snapped as a big, round-shouldered boy with sandy brown hair appeared. “I would remind you that you are not here for your personal amusement; this is work.”

“Yes, sir,” said Bill. Perseus thought he gave the distinct impression of a dog. A big, friendly, likable kind of dog; say a Labrador or a retriever, but definitely a subservient character.

“I want you to begin work on an itinerary,” Illingworth ordered. “It seems that I shall going on expedition soon. You will prepare my schedule and be ready with my apologies once the dates are set.”

“Expedition, sir?” asked Bill.  

“Do you mean you’re coming yourself, Professor?” said Elizabeth in surprise.

“I do. Since I shall be taking full responsibility for this…endeavor, I shall at least go along to ensure the work is done properly.”

“Is that…wise, sir?” asked Bill. “At your time of life?”

“Thank you, Bill, but I assure I am quite fit,” said Illingworth sharply. “This will not be my first trip to the Amazon; I know perfectly well what to expect.”

He drew himself up and seemed to flicker momentarily to life, like a dying fire under the bellows.

“It will probably do me good,” he added. “I’ve been cooped up in that drafty office for too long.”

“Yes, sir,” said Bill.

“What is going on?”

A girl joined them. She was short and slender, with long dark hair and wonderfully formed hands. Her pale skin was appealingly contrasted by her black dress.

“Your father is going on expedition to the Amazon, Frances,” said Bill.

“You are?” she said in evident surprise.

“Yes, and don’t you start about my age,” Illingworth said, though in a different and much gentler tone than he had used with Bill.

“I wasn’t about to,” she said. “I think it’s wonderful! It’s been ages since you’ve gotten out and done any real work.”

She glanced at Bill, who colored a little.

“Ah, before we go any further, sir,” he said, clearing his throat. “There is something I…that is to say…”

“Well, what is it?” Illingworth snapped. “Out with it man! There’s work to be done.”

“Only…”

Bill glanced at Frances, then squared his shoulders.

“Only that I should very much like to join you, sir.”

Perseus saw Frances’ face fall from controlled excitement to open disgust. Illingworth, however, merely frowned.

“Would you?” he said. “Have you any experience with field work?”

“No, sir,” he admitted. “But that is just why I would like to come. It would be a boon to my career to be able to say I accompanied you on one of your trips, and I’m sure I would learn more in a few weeks in the field than I would in years in the classroom.”

“That’s true enough,” said Illingworth. “Well, then, you shall come. But I expect no complaints and no shirking of your duties.”

“No, sir. Also, I would like to marry your daughter.”

“You WHAT?!” Illingworth exploded.

“Quick; come away and let’s start planning,” said Elizabeth, seizing Perseus’s hand and dragging him out of the hall. Her face suggested she was holding in her laughter with difficulty and wanted to escape before it broke free Illingworth’s shouts followed them, echoing through the stone halls. Indeed, as soon as they regained the main hall, she burst into quiet, but heartfelt peals of merriment.

“Poor Frances!” she laughed. “What a way to have it come out! But at least now they can get on with it; the silly ass has been wanting to marry her for years.”

Perseus affected to laugh as well. The genuine amusement he felt at the boy’s clumsy proposal at least helped to cover his discomfort.

“Elizabeth,” he said. “About this expedition. Are you going to insist on coming? I’ve been on trips like these before, you know; it’s very different from reading about them. And I…the last thing I’d want is for anything to happen to you.”

“Thank you,” she said. “That is very sweet of you, and gratifying. And I know it will be terribly dangerous and hard and I’m sure I’ll probably to look back more than once and think what a perfect idiot I was to insist on coming. But then, I’m also certain that if I don’t go, I will always look back and wish that I had. It’s not fair that you should have all the adventures, you know; I’d like at least one.”

“As you like,” he sighed. “And I can’t deny that it will be pleasant to have you along for once.”

“Thank you,” she said. “Partners?”

She held out a hand. He swallowed and took it.

“Partners.”

Friday Flotsam: Good and Bad or Social Types

One of the key dividing lines in the world, as I see it, is between those who think in terms of good and bad and those who think in terms of this or that kind of person. Of course, there’s a lot of overlap there, and the latter would say that they are thinking in terms of justice and right, but they think of these things in terms of abstract group dynamics rather than principles.

The example I like to use is when someone gets angry that a given person has a big country estate and all the comfort in the world, while hundreds of other people can barely make ends meet. The thing is though, it is highly unlikely that the former has his comfort because the latter are suffering. In any case, to be free from money worries and to live in a beautiful home is itself a good thing as far as it goes. Though, by its nature, it’s a good thing that not everyone can have. Is it really better that no one should have it? That this particular kind of good should never be experienced because it will not be experienced by everyone? Are there no benefits associated with such a state of affairs, either for individuals or society as a whole?

This is one reason I’m in favor of aristocracy; I think financial independence, family honor, and high titles are good things as far as they go, and I’d much rather have a world where such goods exist than one in which they don’t. Such a world would be (arguably is) infinitely the poorer for it.

That’s what I mean by thinking in terms of good and bad and not this or that kind of person. The issue is not if someone is rich or poor, the issue is the qualities he shows and the object state of his situation. If a man is ill, that is itself a bad thing that commands pity; the poor man is entitled to more concern only because and to the extent that he has fewer resources for dealing with it. I can easily imagine a scenario in which a poor man and a rich man are both in straights, but the rich man is the more deserving of the two: e.g. both find themselves in financial difficulties, the rich man because he was robbed, the poor man because he gambled.

To think in good or bad terms — the traditionalist mindset — means to judge by eternal, objective values; is this person kind or cruel, liberal or miserly, polite or rude, wise or foolish? It means to prefer good qualities over bad, regardless of what ‘class’ the person fits in. Of course, you don’t expect the same kind of manners from a Mr. Peggotty as from a Mr. Copperfield, but you expect courtesy and kindness from both. This is why things like people saying that Charlie Chan is a racist caricature because he is courteous and non-confrontational are simply meaningless to me; those are good qualities, whether they’re stereotypes or not.

The people I admire tend to have certain qualities; honor, dignity, intelligence, conviction, moral fiber, and so on. So, people like Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Frederick Douglass, Saigo Takamori, St. Louis, St. John Henry Newman, and so on. People I dislike or do not admire lack these qualities. It is a matter of indifference to me what social group they fall under.

However, you will note that this also gives what I think is the only rational basis for a non-prejudiced approach. If what you admire is a given quality, then you will seek it and acknowledge it whether it is found with an Englishman, an American, a Japanese, or an African. It may, for whatever reason, be more common here or there, but what does that matter? The quality itself is the important point.

This is, in fact, aristocracy in the truest sense; rule of excellence.

Altering Thoughts

As I’ve shared before, I suffer from moderate depression. Lately, in my effort to combat it, I’ve been reading a book called Feeling Good by David Burns, MD. Though I’m very skeptical of most modern psychology, this one is actually based on pretty solid insights, ones that harmonize with what I read from older authors (always a good sign) and which make philosophical sense. The author also makes a point of proudly noting that his therapy is actually scientifically tested, which apparently is not standard procedure for therapy methods (“cognitive therapy is one of the first forms of psychotherapy which has been shown to be effective through rigorous scientific research under the critical scrutiny of the academic community” – Feeling Good: chp 1. Translation: “most psychotherapy is pure snake oil”). In any case, I highly recommend the book, especially to anyone suffering depression, though I think the principles can be applied to many other disorders, as you will see.

The central principle of Cognitive Therapy is this: thoughts create emotions. We feel the way we do because of how we think, and we also act accordingly.

Now, thoughts are reflections of reality; there is the real thing, then there is our idea of it as perceived through the senses. A true thought is one that is accurate to the thing perceived as it really is (“Actual knowledge is identical with its object.” –De Anima, III, 5. “The idea of the thing known is in the knower,” –Summa Theologiae 1.Q14.A1). Basically it’s like we’re constantly making drawings or descriptions in our minds of what we perceive with greater or lesser accuracy.

Our emotions follow from these thoughts; because we perceive a thing a certain way, we react to it in a certain way. If your mind forms a picture of a beautiful woman, you react one way. If your mind includes the detail that she’s pointing a gun at you while brandishing an Antifa flag, you react another way. But which reaction you have, which of the passions is engaged, depends on the image you provide to them.  

Therefore, if your thoughts are a fair reflection of reality, your emotions will be reasonable and valid. If your thoughts are distorted, your emotions will be distorted and invalid. “The first principle of cognitive therapy is that all your moods are created by your ‘cognitions’ or thoughts…You feel the way you do right now because of the thoughts you are thinking at this moment. ” (Feeling Good: chp. 1. Emphasis in original).

The interesting thing about this is that it is exactly the same principle presented in the book Inside the Criminal Mind by Stanton Samenow Ph.D. regarding how to effectively reform people with criminal mindsets. Criminals commit crimes because of the way they think; because their minds are fundamentally fixed on what they want. They are reformed when their habits of thought are altered, which generally involves intensive, uncompromising therapy and refusing to allow excuses: “How a person behaves is determined largely by how he thinks. Criminals think differently…Our approach to change must be to help the criminal radically alter his self-concept and his view of the world. Some criminals can be ‘habilitated,’ that is, helped to acquire patterns of thinking that are totally foreign to them but are essential if they are to live responsibly” (Inside the Criminal Mind – Chp 1. Emphasis in the original).  

In the field of eating disorders, the lovely Beauty Beyond Bones also recounts a similar principle for how she was able to overcome anorexia, recounting the grossly distorted thoughts surrounding her disorder and how replacing those thoughts with the truth is what ultimately saved her. “She’s doing this to herself because of an inner voice that’s got a grip on her. An inner Lie that is louder than anything else… To beat the disease, you have to: A) name the Lie B) discredit the Lie and C) replace it with the truth.”

Even more encouraging, this is essentially the traditional view of the matter. What did the old Saints and Homilist’s say? “Meditate upon Christ.” Just as one example, much of St. Francis de Sales’s  Introduction to the Devout Life consists in telling people what to think about. “To attain such a conviction and contrition you must faithfully practice the following meditations. By the help of God’s grace they will be very helpful in rooting out of your heart both sin and the chief affections for it” (Introduction the Devout Life: The First Part, 8.).  

Our Lord Himself alluded to this: “The light of thy body is thy eye. If thy eye be single, thy whole body shall be lightsome. But if thy eye be evil thy whole body shall be darksome. If then the light that is in thee, be darkness: the darkness itself how great shall it be!” (Matt. 6:22-23). The eye, that is perception, determines one’s condition. If our perception is distorted or evil, our evil shall be great indeed.  

In short, this principle of thought creating emotion, leading to action keeps cropping up in different contexts, yet always, it seems, with actual evidence and actual successes to back it up.

Now, you will note the corollary; if thoughts determine emotions and consequent actions, and distorted thoughts lead to distorted actions, then mental health means having thoughts that adequately reflect reality. Basically, true thoughts. Everyone would agree with this; I would call it an axiom that of course we are obliged to think honestly. It is arguably the fundamental duty of mankind.

But if thoughts, as everyone agrees, can be true or false, accurate or distorted, that means that emotions can likewise be true or false, valid or invalid.

That’s great news when you’re dealing with depression or other painful psychological disorders. It’s somewhat less great news when you realize that this pretty much invalidates most modern thought.

For instance, you take this opening statement from a ‘Psych Central’ article found with a two-second Duckduckgo search: “Emotional invalidation is when a person’s thoughts and feelings are rejected, ignored, or judged. Invalidation is emotionally upsetting for anyone, but particularly hurtful for someone who is emotionally sensitive. Invalidation disrupts relationships and creates emotional distance. When people invalidate themselves, they create alienation from the self and make building their identity very challenging.”

The idea of emotional invalidation is now pretty much out the window, or at least heavily altered. Because your emotions can be invalid, and if so, the kindest thing to do would be to convince you of that, if possible, and the worst thing would be to validate them. Whether and how you can do that in any given situation is, of course, another story. The point is that emotional reactions are not somehow independent of objective reality.  

“When you do this, I feel mad.” But the question is, is that a reasonable response? What is the actual situation, and how are you perceiving it? What would be a more accurate perception?  

Because you see, when you validate someone else’s false emotions and false thoughts, you strengthen them. It’s right there in the word: you reassure them that their false thoughts are not false. You reinforce their habit of thinking that way and experiencing those emotions. The more you ‘validate’ someone’s invalid emotions and false thinking, the deeper you drive them into that pit (the bigger question, of course, is ‘just how do you convince them their emotions are invalid?’ Which I confess I don’t have an answer for).  

In short, since emotions follow thought and thoughts can be distorted, the mere fact that you experience a given emotion says absolutely nothing about the validity of that emotion. That has to be established on quite different grounds.

If distorted thoughts lead to distorted emotion and consequently to things like depression, criminality, and eating disorders, then you can see how distorted ideas can affect society at large. A given religion or ideology frames how we will perceive the world; that is, it provides the baseline for our thoughts and consequently for our emotions and actions. In the old days, societies were very cautious about the ideas they allowed or encouraged to be at large in the public mind, precisely because they understood this dynamic. Whether they were right or wrong to have done that is another question, as is the whole point of the specific ideas they opposed. However, it does rather undermine the whole idea of pluralism. The proposal that every man has the right to create his own view of the world and that all ideas are to be received as equally valid as far as society is concerned rests upon the notion that our ideas, our thoughts, do not substantially affect our actions or make us good or bad people. But, in fact, they are the only things that do (the fact that no pluralist society – including our own – actually lives by this principle further undermines it; try publicly suggesting that there are fundamental differences between races if you want to see how pluralistic we really are when it comes to ideas we as a society actually care about).

You see, if thoughts determine emotion and behavior, then whether people think truly or falsely is very much in the public interest and “all points of view are valid” is both false and dangerous.

I suspect, though I can’t prove, that pluralism factors into this dynamic in another way. As Uncle Screwtape explained, people in the old days used to be pretty well aware of the thoughts that governed their actions and were prepared to alter their lives on the strength of a line of argument. But we moderns are not like that; with the modern media and other such things, we are bombarded from morning until night with dozens of contradictory ideas and points of view, while at the same time we are encouraged to think of them less as true or false than as interesting or shocking or offensive or liberal or conservative or inspiring. In any case, the pluralistic environment we live in gives us an instinctual check to thinking anything absolutely true or false and acting accordingly.

The result, as I see it, is that we have a massive amount of mental static cluttering up our brains, and the actual ideas and beliefs that govern our actions slip by unnoticed. This might be one reason why there seems to have been an exponential increase in psychological and emotional disorders as pluralism became more widespread (there are obviously other factors, such as the breakdown of community, but that’s another story).

But to go back a little ways, if thoughts lead to emotions and distorted thoughts to emotional distortion (e.g. depression), and if ideas and worldviews provide the baseline for thoughts, then evil, false, and just plan insane ideas spread throughout society will create emotional distortions on a massive scale. Depression writ-large, in fact.

So if you have, say, the idea “men have always oppressed women, looked down upon them, and tried to keep them subservient,” abroad in society, then many people, perhaps most, will perceive the world through that lens. Whole institutions, laws, practices will be created accordingly, reinforcing the idea (again, action reinforces thought: when you live an idea, the idea and its consequent emotions becomes more fixed in your mind).

The result is…well, what we see. Widespread misery, injustice, and a maniacal, ongoing effort to fix the problem by continually reasserting the lie, like trying kill the pain by popping methamphetamines. Just like in matters of depression, where you think things like “If I can only stay in bed and do nothing today, I will feel better,” or “if the world weren’t set against me, I would be happier.”

One of my favorite games is Psychonauts, where you play as a young psychic who travels into people’s minds and battles their inner demons. One particular level has you helping a manic-depressive actress and concludes in a boss fight against her bloated inner critic, who fights by shooting words of criticism at you. You defeat him by shining spotlights on him. That is, exposing him and leaving him vulnerable to attack.

That’s how we defeat distorted thoughts, by exposing them to the light of truth and then mercilessly pummeling them while they’re down. Whether inside our own heads or abroad in the world, whether they take the form of actual statements of fact or emotional reactions, the thing to do is to show them for what they are and take them apart.

Because emotional reactions, that sense of hopelessness and despair, that feeling that the world is so cruel and unfair, those are only symptoms; symptoms of how you think. They are consequences of lies. “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

Chapter Three of ‘Perseus Corbett and the Forbidden Valley’

See Chapter One here and Chapter Two here

Chapter Three
“A Once-In-A-Lifetime Kind of Chance”

These are the Four that are never content,
that have never been filled since the Dews began–
Jacala’s mouth, and the glut of the Kite,
and the hands of the Ape, and the Eyes of Man.
-Rudyard Kipling, The King’s Ankus

            A steerage passage to London was the most that their scanty resources could command. Perseus was reluctant to return to the capital and had argued against the idea, but Martin had quite rightly pointed out that it was the only likely place within their reach where they could put their new plans into motion. They could not afford to the passage to New York, and no one in the Parisian scientific community would dream of helping them after that expedition to the Congo.

And so it was that, two days after the death of Old Joe on the streets of Istanbul, Perseus Corbett was en route to his home country for the first time in nearly a decade.

            To avoid thinking of the fact, he spent most of the passage pouring over Cooper’s notebook, and especially the opening words:

            I have undertaken to write a faithful account of the events of the ill-fated journey that I undertook alongside the late Professor Applegate. The events described in these pages will differ considerably from the narrative which I and the others of our party presented to the world regarding the deaths of Professor Applegate, John Miller, and the comaradas, Simplicio and Gomez, but I hope the reason for our deception will become clear over the course of my narrative. It was agreed between ourselves (that is to say, between Professor Arnold Prosser and myself) that, in the light of the fantastic things we witnessed, that the truth simply would not be acceptable, all the more so in that we did not and do not understand just what it is we have discovered. I hope that my narrative shall make this clear. 

As for why I have determined, with the concurrence of my friend, to write the true account these four years later, that is far simpler. I shall be going to the Front soon. If I do not return, as seems all too likely, then the truth risks being lost forever. Prosser is in poor health; he never quite recovered from the experience. As I feel that some whom we have deceived, particularly Mrs. Applegate and her children, have a right to know the truth, I am now committing these memories to paper while I am still able to. If they ever read this, I can only beg their forgiveness for the deception we have played upon them.

            At the same time, I must beg them, if they ever do read these pages, to never allow them to become public. I hope, when they have read my account of what we found, they shall feel the same. The Treasure House of the Gods, the man called it. That was enough to tempt us to that damn valley, and it sure would be enough to tempt others.

            What followed was a strange and rather rambling narrative, written in an often difficult hand. Cooper had been a big game hunter and British Army Officer who was commissioned by Professor Applegate, an eminent zoologist, to take him and some companions up a tributary of a tributary of the Amazon, called “Rio Noite,” or the River of Night on account of its black coloring.

            The first part of the narrative was merely a summary of his own life and how he had become involved in the expedition on recommendation of a friend of his named John Miller, who would become one of the expedition’s casualties. Several more were taken up with an account of their journey to and up the Noite.

            Then came the interesting part.

            One evening, when it came time to make camp, they spotted a large black stone idol beside the river and, against Cooper’s advice, had decided to make camp there, as they had already been some time looking for a landing place. One of the comaradas, or native bearers, a man named Gomez, then said that he had seen this same idol before. His tale was that he had been part of a surveying expedition with a Brazilian army officer some years before, which had followed the Noite to a little beyond this point until fever and lack of supplies forced them to turn back. It was, he said, on their return journey that they found the idol, and what was far stranger, there was a man sitting beneath it. An ancient man, almost like a mummy. Thinking he might be lost and in need of help, they stopped and approached him. When they spoke to him, the man began to chant in fluent Portuguese:

            “Forbidden. Forbidden. Forbidden. Three days to the rising sun is the place forbidden.

            However they addressed him, he never said anything else. He died that very hour, and they buried him beside the Amazon. But he, Gomez, said that when he had asked his father about it after returning, he said that the ‘place forbidden’ was a place in many of their legends; the Treasure House of the Gods.

            Once the man had shared his story, Professors Applegate and Prosser had become immensely curious to know what this ‘place forbidden’ might be. Cooper himself was intrigued by the name ‘Treasure House of the Gods.’ After some more consultation, it was decided that part of the expedition should attempt the three-day journey into the jungle, just to see what, if anything, was out there. Cooper, Miller, Applegate, and Prosser, along with two comaradas (including Gomez) went off into the jungle, leaving the rest of the party behind.

            After three days’ journey, they indeed found the place; a great valley or pit in the middle of the jungle, with walls so steep that it would be impossible for anything to climb out of it.

            “What struck the eye the most, however, was that at the exact center…”

            But here the manuscript broke off in mid-sentence.

            It was intensely frustrating to have so tantalizing and yet so incomplete a narrative. If it were not for that introduction, there would be little to interest him.

            Yet, throughout there was something; a sense that it was not only fear of not being believed that compelled the two men to hold their tongues. Whatever they had found there, it had astonished them, frightened them even, though wonder as much as horror was likewise stamped on every page. 

            Perseus bitterly wished that he had the whole thing, particularly the account of what they actually found in the valley that had been so fantastic or so terrible as to make it impossible to render a true account to the world. But even these faint hints were enough to awaken the very feelings that Cooper had hoped to avoid. Perseus was now dead set on finding the valley for himself and discovering what it contained.

            Other than his burning curiosity and frustration over the incomplete narrative, and his anxiety at the thought of returning home, it was a perfectly comfortable voyage. When he wasn’t studying the book, Perseus and Martin walked about on deck, exchanging greetings with the other passengers and forming plans.

            They had already decided that it would require professional support to fund and equip an expedition to the valley. The two of them could not practically travel into the depths of the Amazon and carry out whatever was to be found there, even if they had money for passage and equipment. The account in Cooper’s book was unfortunately spare, but Perseus thought there was enough to convince someone of the location’s being of archeological or zoological significance, if they could be convinced of the book’s veracity.

            Martin was more skeptical. He thought the book as likely to put off any potential backers as otherwise, and in any case two vagabonds such as themselves showing up with a wild tale of lost worlds in the Amazon was not likely to get much of a hearing.

            “Of course,” he said as they walked about the deck one afternoon. “We may have better success if we had a contact; someone well-known in society and of good reputation.”

            “Naturally,” said Corbett. “But what good is that? We don’t. At least, not in English society. Perhaps if we work our way across to America…”

            “Pardon me, but I believe we do,” said Martin.

            “Do you? Then it must be one of your governor’s cronies; remember, I haven’t been in the country since the end of the war.”

            “Yes, but before that, as I recall…”

            Perseus saw what he was getting at and felt his stomach clench. He looked around, saw a thin, spectacled man reading a newspaper nearby and pulled Martin away.

            “If you mean Lady Elizabeth Darrow,” he said sharply, lowering his voice. “That is out of the question.”

            “And why if I may ask?”

            “In the first place, it is odds on against her remembering me at all. In the second, I do not intend to show up after all this time to beg her for money. And in the third…well, those two will do.”

            Martin’s well-trained eyebrows rose a little, but he only said, “As you wish,” and let the subject drop.

            They discussed other plans for a time, but they all shipwrecked on the same problem; that they needed money, and this journey was taking most of what they had.

            “If I may,” said Martin at last. “Perhaps the simplest solution would be best. This valley is not going anywhere. If we were to once more ply a trade for a time, save our wages, we may be able to arrange something within a few months.”

            Perseus hated this solution. It was, he knew, very sensible, but it meant delay, and the recent allusion to Elizabeth had made him all the more impatient. He could almost see her now, ensconced at Sangral with her husband, whom he pictured as a fat, old man rolling in money and who didn’t care tuppence for her. The thought of it was like burning venom in his veins, though it was not nearly so painful as another possibility, which Perseus never allowed himself to imagine; that of her married to a good man who loved her dearly, and whom she cared for more than she had ever cared for him…

            But though he didn’t like the plan, he accepted it, at least for the present. They went to dinner and Martin retired to their cabin, while Perseus, restless and irritable after their conversation of the afternoon, paced the deck for several hours more, fingering the silver medal about his throat.

            Though she was constantly in his thoughts, it had been some time since Elizabeth’s name had been mentioned between them, and Perseus was surprised by the vehemence of the emotions that had been aroused by it. It made him feel old; old and tired. The years behind him seemed to blend together into a haze of wasted time and opportunity. If only he had done this, or that, or not done the other, then he might have been rich long ago and things might have been different. If only…

            “Of all the words of tongue and pen,” he quoted aloud to himself. “The saddest are these; it might have been.”

            He leaned over the rail, watching the dark Atlantic pass by beneath him. Whatever happened, he promised himself, he would not miss this one. There would be no more delay. If he had to lie or cheat or steal, he would do whatever it took.

            “Nice night,” said a voice behind him.

            Perseus, shaken out of his reverie, turned around. The thin, spectacled man was standing behind him, leaning against the wall and gazing up at the clear sky.    

            “Yes, very,” said Perseus, glancing up. His instincts were telling him that there was something not quite right here. He looked closer at the man; thin, young, with a pronounced Adam’s apple and slicked, straw-colored hair. American, to judge by his voice.

“Had you been in Istanbul long?” the man asked.

            “Not very,” said Perseus.

            “You don’t mind my talking to you, do you?” the man asked. “It’s a bit of a habit of mine, talking to strangers on ship.”

            “No, not at all; glad for the company,” said Perseus.

            “You see, I couldn’t help overhearing a little of your conversation this afternoon. You are an archeologist, I think you said?”

            “Something of that sort.”

            “Fascinating subject. Is that what brought you to Istanbul?”

            “No, that was a matter of fetching a package for a friend.”

            “Ah. Well, you see, I represent the Museum of Natural History in New York, and what I heard you mention intrigued me. You say you have found the record of an expedition that discovered an unknown region of the Amazon?”

            “My goodness; you overheard quite a lot.”

            The man laughed a little.

            “I’m afraid so. I was so interested I couldn’t help it. But I heard you say you were looking for backers, now I can vouch for it that if the book is verified, my organization would be more than happy to arrange for an expedition.”

            Perseus’s eyes lit up. It was tempting; almost, it seemed, too tempting. Yet something was off…

            “That is extremely generous,” he said.

            “I can understand your surprise,” said the other. “But see, it isn’t a matter of charity. See, I’m looking for a opportunity to get ahead in my profession; get away from just running errands for the stuffed shirts who run the show. As soon as I heard what you had, I knew that this was my chance: a once-a-lifetime kind of chance!” 

            “I feel much the same way,” Perseus answered. 

            “You have the book, of course?”

            “Oh, yes,” he said, patting his jacket pocket.

            “If I might take a look at it tonight, I could verify it and I could wire from London tomorrow,” said the man.

             Yes, definitely too tempting.

            “What is your name, sir?”

            “Dang it if I didn’t forget to even mention it!” the man laughed. “It’s Byron.”

            “And what brought you to Istanbul?”

            “Work. As I say, I work with the Natural History Museum.”

            “Is there a great deal of natural history in Constantinople?”

            Byron’s Adam’s apple twitched a little.

            “Well, see, it was like this; we were arranging with the Istanbul University to have an exhibit on Turkish wildlife, and I was trying to convince them to lend us some excellent specimens they have. That fell through, I’m afraid.”

            “And so you are going to London?”

            “Yes, I have family there.”

            Perseus nodded.

            “And, excuse me, but if our conversation this afternoon was so fascinating to you, why did you wait until now to mention all of this? Seems an odd approach to a once-in-a-lifetime kind of chance.”

            There was a pause.

            “My offer is perfectly genuine,” said Byron. “But if you don’t like that, I can make another one. How much do you want for that book?”

            Perseus’s eyebrows rose.

            “That is a bit of a shift in tone,” he said. “But I suppose I could consider letting it go for…ten-thousand pounds?”

            “Done,” said Byron. “I’ll wire for the money as soon as we reach London.”

            “Pardon me, it is not done,” said Perseus. “I said I could consider the possibility. Now that it has been confirmed as a possibility, I might reconsider at fifty thousand.”

            “That could be arranged,” said Byron.

            Perseus smiled and shook his head. The American was not very good at this game.

            “Exactly how high are you willing to go, Mr. Byron?” he asked.

            The American scowled. One hand had been resting in his coat pocket the whole conversation, and now it emerged, holding a revolver.

            “Not a penny,” he said. “Hand it over.”

            The hand holding the gun was steady. Evidently, though Byron was not a very good negotiator, he knew his way around firearms and as Perseus knew that the man couldn’t bluff, he evidently was serious.

            Perseus, who had been leaning against the rail this whole time, now shifted his weight and sat atop it. He folded his arms and once more shook his head.

            “No, I don’t think so,” he said. “And I don’t think you’re going to shoot me either.”

            “What makes you so sure?”

            “In the first place, if you had intended to, you might have done so while we were talking and spared yourself a good deal of self-inflicted humiliation. In the second, you have already given away just how important this book is to you, which means you cannot afford to have it go tumbling into the bosom of the wine-dark sea along with my corpse. As that almost certainly will happen if you shoot me now, I’m reasonably sure you will not try it.”

            He reached into his coat pocket.

            “Don’t move!” Byron barked.

            Perseus ignored him and produced his cigarette case. He drew one out and offered one to Byron, who shook his head irritably. Perseus lit his cigarette with a perfectly steady hand and tossed the match over the side before returning the case to his pocket.

            “Are you willing to get shot just to keep that book out of my hands?” Byron demanded.

            “Not at all, but as I say, you are not going to shoot me as long as there is a chance you will lose the book in the process,” said Perseus. “Now, if you have any sense at all – which I am willing to assume for the sake of argument – you will see that we are at an impasse. If you shoot me, I take the book to the bottom of the Atlantic. If you attempt to approach and take the book from me, you risk being thrown into the briny deep along with me. Or even just by yourself.”

            Byron swallowed. Perseus could almost see him trying to figure out a way around the dilemma.

            “So, it seems to me,” Perseus went on. “That at present your only options are to clear off and try again some other time, or to simply wait there with that gun in your hands until someone comes along and sees what a bloody great fool you look.”

            Byron’s face twitched and his Adam’s apple jerked with anger. But Perseus’s sketch of the situation was far too clear to admit of any argument, and besides which he was, as Perseus guessed, an amateur at this game. He was clever and had the stomach to kill, but he lacked experience. He looked up and down the deck, then returned the gun to this pocket.

            “Wise move,” said Perseus.

            “This isn’t over,” Byron growled.

            “It never occurred to me that it was.”

            Byron slouched off into the night. Perseus let him get a fair distance away before setting off in the opposite direction.

            His first move was to report the matter to the crew. He suspected Byron would be clever enough to get off the ship before he was caught, but it would at least keep the fellow busy for a while.

He made his report, truthfully as far as it went, that the man calling himself Mr. Byron had approached him regarding certain private papers he had and first attempted to buy them, then demanded them at gunpoint. Just what made them so important, he could not say, but evidently the man was a crook and a gangster.

            “I must say, sir, you handle the matter very coolly,” said Third Officer Otterborn, a cherubic little man with an enormous black handlebar mustache. He looked like less like a naval officer than like an opera singer, but he acted decisively upon hearing Perseus’s storing, and ordered a thorough search of the ship at once. “Sitting there and bluffing him like that; that took some nerve.”

            “Yes, I got that from the Royal Navy during the war,” said Perseus. “Suspect I’m not the only one present.”

            Otterborn smiled and nodded; two veterans of the same war and the same service acknowledging each other.

            “What ship did you serve on?” he asked

            “The Dauntless. Destroyer”

            “I was on the Intrepid myself,” said Otterborn. “Cruiser. Now, Mr. Corbett, I hope you will not think any less of the Cunard Steamship Company due to this regrettable incident.”

            “Not at all! One can’t watch one’s passengers all the time; wouldn’t want you to. Hardly the worst thing that could happen at sea, what?”

            Otterborn laughed.

            “I am delighted by your attitude, Mr. Corbett. But is there anything at all we can do to, ah, compensate for the incident?”

            “I don’t think that will be necessary,” said Perseus. “Good night, sir.”

            He made his way back to the cabin, confident that Byron would be kept safe one way or another, at least for the rest of the voyage.

            But in the meantime, this changed things. In the first place, it dispelled any idea of the book being some kind of gigantic hoax or delusion on the part of the old man. It also removed any doubts he may have had whether its secrets included any kind of treasure. Someone evidently thought it both real and valuable enough to kill for.

And that same someone knew he had it.

That once-in-a-lifetime chance of his was looking chancier by the minute. That meant that, even apart from his own fears, time was no longer something they could count on.

The rest of the voyage passed quietly, as expected. Byron was not discovered, making them suspect he had somehow found a way off the ship. This at least, as Perseus said, would give them some breathing space once they arrived.

            London. Perseus had not been back to his home city for ten years, had not lived there for almost fourteen, and had carefully avoided any news from England all that time. The old city was much as it had been; there were more motorcars and buses these days, and the smog was perhaps a trifle thicker, but it was still the same vast sea of people churning over the remains of age piled upon age, like ants swarming on a cathedral floor. 

            Having now been all over the world and having lived in tropical places, where the colors were stark and the people alive, Perseus was struck by how drab and pale the English were. They went about in browns and greys and muted colors, muttering familiar platitudes to one another in reluctant voices, as though the great ambition of each Englishman was to pass unnoticed in the world.

            Men, he reflected, had their wild and tamed breeds. He had lived among wild men; men conscious of their own power and exulting in its use. Here were domesticated men; men who, to the extent they knew their own strength were terrified of it. They were like a Mastiff who starts at the advances of a small cat, not because he fears the cat, but because he fears his own enormous strength and what it may do to the cat.

            There was something to be said for either side. At least in London the odds of being murdered in your sleep was rather lower than in, say, Senegal. But then, it was always depressing to see a magnificent animal reduced to pulling carts.  

            The first move in London, as they had settled, would be to find a way into the kind of scientific circles that could arrange for an expedition to the Amazon. Perseus left this in Martin’s hands. There was another, equally important matter that he alone could see to. For their financial situation was nearly desperate. Money would be necessary to approach those with money; they could hardly show up in the stained, battered clothing they had worn in Istanbul. And if, as seemed likely, their efforts took time, they would have to be able to live. Martin’s idea of simply working a trade for a time was no longer practical; they needed to get under way as soon as possible if they were to stay ahead of Byron and his people.  

            This left Perseus with a painful choice to make, for he had only one possession of any value, and he had never parted with it before.

            But this is the one, he told himself. The one that will make me. It is not forever.

            So it was that, not without a great effort of will, he entered an upscale pawn shop, slipped the Charles I medal from his neck, and asked for a price.

            “Hm,” said the pawnbroker, squinting at it through his glass. “Difficult to say…”

            “Perhaps I should save us both some time,” said Perseus, whose patience was already a little strained. “I know for a fact that it is real silver and that the object is of considerable antiquity. If you suggest a price under three hundred pounds, I will take it elsewhere.”

            The pawnbroker took the glass from his eye and glared at him.

            “Is that a fact?”

            “It is. I could take it to the British Museum and they would give me ten times that amount. The only reason I’ve brought it here is that I should like to be able to redeem it at some point.”

            “But look here,” said the pawnbroker. “I run a business; the question is not how special this is to you, but how valuable it is to me…”

            “And you cannot tell me that rich collectors don’t stop by here like clockwork,” said Perseus. “You could name your own price for this with any such man who has the least amount of brains. Look here,” he pointed to the back of the medallion. “You see that? Do you know what it is? Seal of Charles the First of unhappy memory. This was given by him to a certain lord who provided service to him during the civil war. Any collector with even an iota of historical knowledge would recognize that. Why, it’s as if I’m handing you a thousand-pound check!”

            Perseus didn’t like the words coming out of his own mouth. How often had he looked over that medal, tracing the ancient markings and thinking of all they meant; of cavaliers and knights, of horses and guns and swords raised in loyal and religious fervor. Thinking also of the hand that had given it to him. Now he was speaking of it as a mere bit of coin; a thing to be sold and made a profit off of. He hated it, but it was necessary for the moment. 

            The pawnbroker hemmed and hawed a while longer, evidently trying to find a way to dispute the indisputable, but in the end he gave in and paid out three-hundred and fifty pounds.

            “Look here, though,” said Perseus after pocketing the money. “I want to make a deal with you. I am soon to leave England, but I mean to redeem that object. How much, honestly, do you intend to sell it for?”

            “As you say,” said the pawnbroker. “It is a unique and very valuable object. I wouldn’t part from it for under nine hundred pounds.”

            “Well,” said Perseus. “If you will be so good as to promise to hold it for one year, then I will pledge to pay two thousand for it within that time.”

            The pawnbroker’s heavy brows lifted.

            “You’re rather sure of yourself,” he said.

            “I am,” said Perseus. “But think of that; it’s like money in the bank. Either you’re assured of two-thousand pounds within the next year or you’re assured of at least nine hundred afterwards. Rather a good deal that.”

            The pawnbroker ran a long finger down his chin. Perseus could tell that he was searching for a catch.

            “Very well,” he said. “I shall put this in the safe until this day next year. Until then, I shall eagerly await your return.”

            He bowed and Perseus, his conscience somewhat mollified by the arrangement, left the shop.

            This is the only way; the last chance, he told himself. It will be worth it.

Friday Flotsam: The Best Animals

I love dogs. I miss having one, and I hope (once I have a life again) to be able to get one of my own. That’s one of the many things I’m looking forward to.

Most people like dogs, and I think it’s fair to say that people in general like dogs (with a few exceptions). We like them because they’re loyal, trainable, and affectionate.

People like horses too. I haven’t spent enough time around horses to say that I like them, but I would like to like them (see above re: having a life again). There’s a great bond between a good man and his good horse; someone once said that “A good man on a good horse is the noblest creature to be seen.” We like horses, well, much the same reason we like dogs; they’re trainable, loyal, affectionate, strong, and useful.

It’s interesting: the animals that people in general love the best are not what we would ordinarily call the best animals. Chimps are the most intelligent animals, to the point they seem almost human. But almost no one has chimps in their houses or trains them up as pets. Chimps were never domesticated. Apes and monkeys in general are novelties. Same thing with the big cats. Elephants are domesticated, but only Asian elephants.

In any case, I think it’s fair to say that the animals that humans love the best and have done the most for are the dog and the horse, along with perhaps the cat. It isn’t exclusive, of course; you will find people who are particularly attached to just about any animal. But these two are the ‘elect’ among the beasts.

I rather think it’s something similar with God. The people He loves best are generally not those whom we would think are the best people. Love and loyalty and trainability (to put it in a somewhat flippant tone) seem to be what He values most, just as we do.

God, of course, is higher above us than we are above the beasts, but there is a parallel there, I think. Man is the summit of earthly nature, being both animal and spirit. The animals, therefore, are his responsibility and under his authority (“let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and the beasts, and the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth” Gen. 1:26). As man is to God, so, in a sense, are the animals to man, being his servants, over whom he has the power of life and death, for whom we are to care and nurture, partly for their sake, but primarily for our own. The highest thing we can do for the animals is to make them, as it were, a member of the family.

And the somewhat eerie thing about it is that when we do this, the animals rise to be something almost human. Stories abound of dogs saving people’s lives, displaying uncanny intuition, mourning by their master’s graves, and so on. They seem to sort of take a bit of our nature into themselves by being exposed to us and loved by us.

There are a few consequences I want to draw out here. First, I had never thought of it before, but I wonder whether the switch from animal power to mechanical power was quite the morally neutral thing that it appears to be. It might be that man was meant to have animals rather than machines as his chief servants, and that in turning away from them, we’ve lost a part of ourselves. The switch after came at the same time as, and indeed was a direct cause of, the dissolution of community. I won’t go so far as to say I think it was certainly a bad thing (much less that there’s anything to be done about it now), I’m only noting it.

More important, I want to draw out that point of the best not being the best loved. Qualities like intelligence or strength or beauty, while they are valued and admired, are not, in the end, what people look for in animals. In the same way, they aren’t what God primarily values, though good in themselves. I rather think that God sees our squabbles over who has more money or status or authority as if a dog were to try to impersonate a chimp. It’s not only doomed to fail, but it’s a matter of trying to trade more desirable qualities for less. Because even if a dog could become a chimp, he would simply find himself sitting in the monkey house at the zoo with strangers staring in at him, rather than curled up comfortable at home with his family.

Or to put it another way, animals that do very well and grow high in the wild are usually not well suited to domestic life. A lion does very well on the Savannah, probably much better than a domesticated dog would, but it would be a very rare lion indeed that anyone would bring into his house. In the same way, someone may do very well in this world, but what does that matter? The important thing is whether we are welcomed into the King’s house.

Keystone Truths: The Transcendent Manifests in the Concrete

One of the keystones for understanding the world, as I see it, is this: men desire the transcendent, but only experience the concrete.

I say we desire the transcendent. Freedom, love, justice, happiness, and so on. There are indeed people who seem to desire nothing but pleasure or material things, but in the first place these are the people who are, frankly, the least human, in the second, their general misery and the disgust with which they are held by the rest of the world shows that even they don’t really want these things in themselves. If all we wanted were safety, security, pleasure, and so on, then we would be happy and content once we got them. But we find (thanks to the experience of the past few generations) that the people who have these things in abundance are precisely the ones who are most likely to blow their own brains out.  

Yet we only experience the concrete. When we say we want ‘love,’ for instance, what do we mean? Well, we want a particular kind of relationship with another person, but what does that relationship look like on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute basis? It’s hugs and kisses and making breakfast and affectionate nicknames and jokes and touches and backrubs and so on and so forth. No one would say these things are love, but they are the way we experience it. A husband who cut them all out (and all other expressions) would have a hard time credibly convincing his wife, or anyone else, that he still loved her. Even if he did, he probably wouldn’t very long, nor she him.

The transcendent must be embodied in the concrete for us to experience it at all. We see this even in the fundamental experience of language, in which ideas are embodied in combinations of sounds or symbols. And on the other hand, when we try to examine pure thought or pure belief or pure emotion, absent anything concrete, we find only a mass of uncertainty, assumption, and question-begging. Our interior life, the farthest removed from the concrete of our experience, is also our most uncertain. That is where our self-deception, our confirmation biases, the fleeting influences of the moment are strongest.

In short, we do not encounter ‘pure spiritual experiences’ in this life. As St. James put it, “shew me thy faith without works; and I will shew thee, by works, my faith.” (James 2: 18).  

This, as I say, is a keystone concept: man desires the transcendent and only experiences the concrete, therefore the transcendent must be incarnated in the concrete for us to experience it. That is, in fact, the particularly human experience. Once get this straight, and many other things follow.

Obviously, the supreme example of this is God manifesting Himself to men in the person of Jesus, and Christ offering Grace to mankind through the Sacraments. But other things follow as well.

One I want to point out especially is this; authority is a transcendent concept. As I’ve pointed out, authority is the power to create moral obligation in those subject to us (and I’m still working this out, so bear with me here). Now, this is incarnated in the power to enforce one’s authority (“For he is God’s minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God’s minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil.” Romans 13:4). Authority is not dependent upon that power, but that power is how authority is normally manifested. This is due to the nature of our being; no one, not even God Himself, can compel a person to do good, we can only punish them for doing evil (which is a curious thing when you think about it; it is absolutely impossible for us to force someone to do good. We can inflict punishment on someone regardless of his will, but we cannot never ‘inflict’ goodness). Therefore, authority, which is directed to a certain good of the subject, manifests itself most clearly in chastisement.

It is, of course, right and indeed best if the commands of legitimate authority are obeyed regardless and chastisement never has to be inflicted. We ought to obey out of love and respect rather than fear. But if we will not obey, then the best thing the authority can do, what he is, in fact, obligated to do, is to establish his authority through chastisement. The father’s duty to his children requires that he punish them when they do wrong. The ruler’s duty to his subjects requires the same.

Nor is this contrary to mercy. Remember, mercy is a function of authority. Therefore, before anyone can show mercy, he must first establish his authority through chastisement (or at least the subject must be brought to understand that such chastisement is both possible and just). “Thou art great, O Lord, for ever, and thy kingdom is unto all ages: For thou scourgest, and thou savest: thou leadest down to hell, and bringest up again: and there is none that can escape thy hand”  (Tobit 13:1-2).

Violence, you see, is not contrary to mercy. In fact, it is often an essential part of what we could call the ‘merciful system.’ In order to show mercy, authority must be established, which often means chastisements must be inflicted and the rebellious subject made to acknowledge, however grudgingly, the authority of the one over him. Even if it gets no farther than “you acknowledge that I could grind you under my heel like a bug right now, correct?” that still creates sufficient authority to show mercy. It is only then that mercy becomes even possible.

Because as long as the other side refuses to acknowledge your authority, and as long as he thinks he doesn’t have to, then refusal to enforce it is not mercy but abdication: the refusal to act according to one’s responsibilities.

The historian Victor Davis Hansen put it very well (though I can’t now find where he said it) that “mercy means beating your enemy to the ground, putting your foot on his neck, and then saying ‘I am not going to destroy you this time.’” The code of chivalry was that vanquished enemies were to be spared: after the knights had done their best to kill one another, and one was finally beaten down to the point where he knows he will either ask for quarter or die, the victor was morally obligated to spare his enemy if he asked for it. Even if, as is the case most of the time, violent chastisement is not necessary, the very idea of mercy requires that it is a moral possibility.

You see what I mean by the idea of the transcendent manifesting in the concrete is a keystone idea? At once we see how things like war, the death penalty, soldiery, and so on are compatible with Christianity, even to the point of being necessary elements, at least in potential. “Blessed are the merciful,” requires that it be possible to show mercy, which means it must be permissible to establish authority.

This also pretty much defangs every clever deconstruction that we moderns employ to try to escape from inconvenient realities. To say something like “marriage is just a piece of paper,” for instance, is simply flat out wrong; it isn’t, but the ‘piece of paper’ (or at least the vows it records) is what the fact of getting married and bound to one another for life looks like in this world. You are not being clever when you point that out; I may as well say that your witty essay arguing the point is nothing but a lot of black marks on paper. Deconstructions, fixing your gaze on the material manifestation of something, is nothing but an irrelevant smokescreen.

Sunday Thoughts – Corpus Christi

I think one of the great problems of the contemporary world is that we undervalue the material aspect of things. I’m sure that sounds shocking, given how materialistic we are, but actually our materialism is only what is to be expected from the undervaluing of matter. Because as with lust to sex, the evil of materialism isn’t that it gives matter too high a place, it’s that it gives it the wrong place. It takes it out of context and so values the wrong aspects. It’s as though we are appraising a book without being able to read, and so we judge it on the typeface and the quality of the pages.

Our materialism is founded in a denial that matter has any intrinsic meaning; the reductionist view that, “the material does not convey Grace, or beauty, or importance; it only helps to elevate our minds to them because we have imputed meaning to these things.” The throne is just a chair and the king is just a man who happens who is imputed to have authority because he is supposedly the best qualified. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A flag is just a piece of cloth. The sacraments are only symbolic expressions of faith.

And matter, consequently, has its importance defined as “does it keep us safe and comfortable?” It is no longer a vehicle of spiritual elevation and communion with God, but only of pure pragmatism. Call it a soft Manichaeism.

The problem is that we only experience the world materially, just as we only read through letters. If you deny that the letters have any meaning and try to sever the letters of the poem from the words, then you soon only have a jumble of symbols on a page. And if all you have is a jumble of symbols, then you can do with them whatever you like. The actual purpose of the letters – the words – has been obscured, and so the letters at once seem to be the only relevant factor and to impose no obligations on us. We don’t have to form actual words or coherent successions of sound, just an arrangement that pleases us. The disconnection of the meaning from the letters leaves the letters both the only concrete thing and without any actual value of their own.

JLJHIK HTH T MIM JLJLHIK

Christianity, in contrast, teaches that matter is not only good, but meaningful. Physical actions create and correspond to spiritual realities, from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil to painting doorposts with the blood of a lamb. Most importantly, God Himself became Man. A real flesh-and-blood man, born of a woman, with all that implies. His physical actions with that body created a new spiritual state of affairs for the mankind which He is now a part of.

Not only that, but this same body of His is the means by which He works His salvation upon us (and this is where things get really interesting). He tells us ” Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you.” (John 6:54). Now, what happens when we eat something? It is broken down and the relevant nutrients become part of our bodies. So, when we eat the flesh of God, God becomes a part of us. That is, we become part of Christ’s body when we eat His flesh. As such, we participate in His resurrection and glorification, as we are now physically related to Him. It’s sort of like how we are physically related to our family members (at least in the sense of there being a real material link), but conveyed in a different manner.

The feast of Corpus Christi reminds us of this relation. More fundamentally, it ought to remind us that material things are not to be treated as if they were just material. Because there is a Body of Christ, let no one hold the body as such in contempt.

Chapter Two of ‘Perseus Corbett and the Forbidden Valley’

See Chapter One here

Chapter Two
Dead Man’s Gift

“I was first mate, I was, old Flint’s first mate, and I’m the on’y one as knows the place.”
-Billy Bones, Treasure Island

            Fourteen years later, Perseus Corbett was still a thousand miles from his heart’s desire.

            He was standing on a pier in Istanbul, before the gangplank of the steamer Aeneas, bound for New York, on a warm, clear night, and was just wondering whether he had forgotten anything. The visas were alright; perfectly genuine. He’d gotten them blank, but pre-approved from a friend in the American State Department a few years before, following a job in that country which hadn’t quite worked out. He was sure they had shaken off all pursuit, and in any case he doubted the Soviets would follow them all the way to Istanbul for the sake of retrieving their property.

            Said property took the very pleasing form of a young lady with shiny, jet-black hair and deep grey eyes, accompanied by her young son. Dressed in the rude garb of a peasant woman and clutching her shawl tight about her head with one white hand, the Countess Nadezhda Vladimirovich looked very little like the great lady she had once been, save for the distinction in her face and carriage, which all her fear and suffering had not yet erased. And though Perseus had assured her again and again that the danger was passed, her eyes nevertheless darted fearfully about and she clutched her son’s hand tight in her own.

            “I believe that is all, your highness,” Perseus said at last. “If you have any trouble in New York, asked for Daniel Kirby of the State Department and tell him that I sent you. Can you think of anything else, Martin?”

            He turned to his partner. Martin Halritter was a tall, straight-backed man with faded gold hair and a severely lined face that almost never betrayed his emotions.

            “I think not,” he said in a voice flavored with the air of Vienna. “I have spoken with one of the crew: Pierre Gustav. He is sympathetic to her highness’s plight and has promised to attend to her during the voyage.”

            “Then I think there is nothing more to say,” said Perseus. “Have a wonderful trip, your highness, and best of luck to you.”

            “Good monsieurs!” she said in her rich, husky voice. “I can never, never thank you enough! You have saved our lives! Still I cannot believe that you should run such risks, show such gallantry on our behalf, and to ask nothing in return!”

            “Oh, think nothing of it,” said Perseus, though inwardly he flinched a little. “No more than what a gentleman ought to do. Particularly these days.”

            “And to send us on to America,” she continued. “I almost fear to accept such kindness!”

            “Please,” said Perseus. “It is clear enough that Istanbul is no place for you. You had much better go to America, where you can be far away from all of this. You will have a new life ahead of you; a chance to start over.”

            He smiled down at little Foma as he said this. The boy had still not spoken a word since they met. But now that the moment of parting had arrived, he stole a furtive look at Perseus before turning away once more. Perhaps once in America, far from the horrors he had been forced to witness, he would begin to heal. 

            “I shall pray for you every day,” the countess promised.

            “That shall be most appreciated,” said Perseus with a bow.

            It felt odd to be saying goodbye. The had spent the better part of the past two weeks in company with the Countess and her son and had been through some very stiff times together. Smuggling them out of Soviet Russia had been no easy task, and it had cost most of what Perseus and Martin had been able to save. In such circumstances, twelve days are the equivalent of a lifetime, and the two men had almost come to feel that the countess were family. But they would not be going to America. There was, at present, nothing there for them.

            The whistle of the steamer blew to signal it was time for all to be aboard. The countess kissed Martin and then went to do the same to Perseus. But when she approached him, he held up a gently declining hand and settled for a simple embrace. Then they bid farewell to little Foma, and with a final, grateful smile the countess picked up her small bundle of baggage and ascended the gangplank.

            “So ends our attempt to retrieve the jewels of Russia,” Perseus sighed.

            “I should say we succeeded quite admirably,” said Martin.

            “Oh, I agree,” Perseus replied. “Don’t regret it for a moment. Rather have that lovely creature and that sweet little boy in the world than all the jewels the Tsars ever had in my pocket. I’m only noting that it seems a bit of a pattern with us, what?”

            He fingered the Charles I medal that lay concealed under his clothing. In the years since he left England, Perseus had grown considerably. He was tall and broad of shoulder, tanned from long days under tropical suns, and muscular from constant exertion. He carried himself much differently than he had as well. Long, careful study and practice had given decision and grace to his movements and eloquence to his manners, belying his shabby clothes. His brown hair had faded a little from his time in the sun, and there was a new thoughtfulness and cunning in his dark eyes.

            The two men sat down upon a set of crates. Perseus produced a battered cigarette case and they smoked in silence while they watched the Aeneas get underway. The countess, a small, dark figure on the stern, waved to them, and they waved back. Little Foma, they were pleased to see, waved alongside his mother.

            “It occurs to me,” said Perseus after the ship had begun its trip down the Bosporus. “That the problem with becoming a gentleman is that gentlemanlike behavior is not at all conducive to making sufficient wealth for a gentleman’s lifestyle.”

            “Indeed,” said Martin. “That is why most try to be born into wealth.”

            “Bit late in the day for that,” Perseus said morosely, fingering his cigarette and glaring at it in some disgust. “How much money have we got left?”

            Martine drew out their purse and counted.

            “About thirty pounds,” he said.

            “I suppose that’s just enough to start over, if we have an idea of where to start,” said Perseus.”

“I am quite certain you will think of something,” said Martin.

            Perseus glanced at him. He wasn’t quite sure how to take that, but the Austrian was too well-trained to give anything away by his face.

Martin had been valet to a count in the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the war. After having his leg shot off by the Italians and his Empire dissolved by the Americans, the count had retired in disgust to the West Indies, where he soon died and Martin had been left to ply his trade for tourists at a hotel. Perseus had taken him on to help dig up some pirate treasure, but yet another inconvenient revolution had left them with little to show for it beyond a fast friendship.  

            Ever since leaving England, Perseus had hunted treasure around the world. He’d gone to sea just before the Great War, did his part in the conflict from the deck of the destroyer Dauntless, and then scoured the globe for the chance to strike it rich, rich enough to make himself a gentleman. A mere business enterprise wouldn’t satisfy him; not only would that take longer than he wished, but the idea of working day after day in trade, trying to grow money like a farmer grew crops repelled him. He recalled the tales of the Darrow ancestors he had heard, of the knights and kings and cavaliers he’d read about in books, and the spirit of commerce seemed as far removed from them as could be imagined.

            No, a real gentleman, he thought, earned his place by deeds, adventure, and daring. It was not something that could simply be bought by accumulating enough in a bank account. At least, not as he saw it. Wealth, of course, he needed, but wealth with a history, wealth earned by action and daring, not by plodding.

            It had seemed straightforward enough when he began, and so it seemed with each new endeavor. He had dug for pirate treasure in the Caribbean, chased lost gold mines in the Rocky Mountains, sought hidden kingdoms in the jungles of Africa and India, dredged for shipwrecks in the East Indies, and dug for tombs in the Egyptian desert. Yet, somehow, each had left him as poor as ever, if not poorer. Many was the time he had stood at the brink of success, had handled ancient gold and hidden treasures, yet each time they had slipped through his fingers like sand.

            And something else had slipped away as well; time. Years ago, the thought had formed in his mind that Elizabeth was not likely to remain unmarried for long. In fact, it was likely as not that she had already moved on and forgotten about him. There was no particular reason she should remember him, let alone wait for him. This thought had grown like a cancer with every delay and failure he had experienced and was now like a permanent cramp in his brain. Since the end of the war, he had carefully avoided returning to England, or even reading English newspapers, lest he find his worst fears confirmed. As long as he didn’t know, he could still hope.

            Perseus threw his cigarette away in frustration and stood up. The Aeneas was almost out of sight down the Bosporus.

            “Come on,” he grunted. “I need a drink.”

            They left the docks and made for one of the numerous taverns that clustered like barnacles around the port. As they approached it, however, a large man in a black felt hat, with a closely trimmed beard stepped forward out of the shadows.

            “Excuse,” he said in a husky Slavic accent. “But I am waiting for some friends of mine. Have you seen them, perhaps? Two men, a dark-haired and very pretty woman, and her little child? They were supposed to arrive in Istanbul today, but I have not seen them.”

            Perseus carefully concealed the alarm that this question had raised. They had arrived at the port of Istanbul that afternoon and had immediately booked the Countess passage on the Aeneas, not leaving the docks the entire time. He was now immensely thankful they hadn’t.

            “I can’t say I have,” he answered. “Didn’t notice any particularly pretty women on our ship coming in, and I generally do notice that sort of thing.”

            The man smiled.

            “Most unfortunate; perhaps they have been delayed.”

            “Perhaps.”

            “Where have you come from, might I ask?”

            “Naples,” said Martin. “And you?”

            The man looked hard at him, which nearly made Perseus smile. He doubted there was a man alive who could read Martin’s face, if he didn’t want it read.

            “Oh, I have been here many years,” the man answered. “I have much business in this city. I am most apologetic to have troubled you. Might I buy you a drink?”

            “No thank you,” said Perseus. “We have business of our own to deal with. Good evening.”

            The man bowed and they walked on down the winding streets of Constantinople.

            “Well,” Perseus sighed once he was sure they were out of sight and that the man had not followed them. “It is damn good thing we sent her off when we did. I never would have thought the Russians would be so keen on getting her back.”

            “Nor I,” said Martin. “It is puzzling, that.”

            “What made you say Naples, by the way?”

            “I happened to recall that the Karnak was the most recent arrival, so it seemed to me the most plausible.”

            “Good lord, what a head for detail you have,” said Perseus. “Well, let’s find ourselves another tavern; preferably one without any Bolsheviks, if there is such a place.”

            They turned down a narrow street and saw what they were looking for up ahead; a hole-in-the-wall tavern, the sort no doubt frequented by sailors and local working-class. As they approached it, a thin old man came stumbling out and nearly walked right into them.

            “’Scuse me, gentlemen,” he muttered, though not in Turkish, but, English. “Much pardon,” he added in broken Turkish.

            “After you, father,” said Perseus in the former language.

            The drunk’s eyes lit up.

            “By God, is that a man of my own country I hear?” he said. “What are you doing in this forsaken place, my fine fellow?”

            “Seeking my fortune, as are we all,” Perseus answered.

            “Not I!” said the man with some dignity, drawing himself up straight and swaying as he did so. “Not I! I have found mine! Found it long ago. But I will say no more…no. Not another word. It is mine. Mine only.”

            “As you say, father,” said Perseus kindly.

            “Don’t you tell a soul,” he said, pressing a finger to his withered lip. “Not a soul. Mine alone. I shall go collect it one of these days. But tonight, I think I must go rest.”

            “Quite,” said Perseus. “Do you need any help, father?”

            “I need no one!” said the old man, pushing he way past them. “Mine alone. I need only time…yes. Time alone…”

            He stumbled on to the end of the street. Perseus and Martin watched him go, Perseus giving his friend a bemused look.

            “Poor old fellow,” he said. “Wonder what his story is.”

            “A sad one, I should say,” said Martin. “But common enough…”

            But then, just as the old man reached the end of the street, three figures jumped out and set upon him. The old man cried out, and struck one of them a solid blow, but was knocked down in an instant.

            “Here!” Perseus shouted, running to his aid. “You leave him alone!”

            The three attackers turned in evident surprise as the two men charged them. The nearest brandished a blood-stained knife at Perseus, who checked himself and raised his hands in defense. The assassin thrust at him, and Perseus dodged the stab and caught him by the wrist, pulling the man between himself and the second attacker while driving his fist into the man’s stomach. He grunted and dropped the knife, and Perseus pushed him into the second man.

            Martin, meanwhile, engaged the third attacker. This man was just bending over the fallen drunk, and Martin kicked him hard in the ribs, knocking him over. The assassin grunted, and tried to roll to his feet, but Martin caught him on the way up and struck him back to the ground.

            The toughs had evidently not been expecting anything like this kind of resistance. They had jumped a defenseless, drunken old man, but now they suddenly found themselves facing two young, fit, and experienced fighters. They stumbled to their feet and scattered as soon as they were able.

            “Bastards,” Perseus grumbled as he knelt over the fallen drunk. “Here, father; are you all right?”

            The old man was clutching his side, right under his heart. A dark stain was spreading over his ragged clothing and onto his withered old hand.

            “Thank you, friends,” he breathed. “Thank you very much. No one has done so much for me these many, many long years. Oh, but I have deserved no more! May God have mercy on my soul…”

            “Here now, it isn’t so bad,” said Perseus, looking significantly at Martin. “We’ll get you a doctor and you’ll be right as rain.”

            Martin nodded and set off at a run.

            “No, no,” said the old man. “It is over; I feel it. I have wasted my life; lost my chance.”

            His face suddenly became anxious and he felt inside his shirt. Then relief spilled over it.

            “It is there,” he gasped. “It is safe.”

            He drew out a small, square bundle wrapped in dirty leather rags and pressed it on Perseus.

            “I give it to you,” he said. “My treasure! My fortune! All I have in the world.”

            At these words, Perseus’s eyes lit up and his heart leapt in spite of himself.

            “What do you mean?” he asked.

            “Read it,” the man said. He was fading fast. “Follow it. And when you are rich beyond mortals, remember old Joe.”

             Perseus took the bundle, the old man’s warm blood staining his hands, and mechanically put it into his pocket.

            “Treasure house of the gods,” the man breathed. “Forbidden…valley…”

            His hand dropped and he breathed no more.

            A moment later, Martin appeared, a constable in tow. He paused upon seeing the huddled, shrunken old body and silently made the Sign of the Cross.

            Perseus and Martin explained what had happened to the policeman, and the body of Old Joe was given up to the state. The Turkish authorities, who had many such bodies, disposed of it in their own fashion, and probably no one in that city thought of or remembered the old man ever again. He slipped below the surface of history as a tiny pebble, even as the ripples he had set in motion began to spread.

            Perseus did not mention the bundle to the police, and it remained tucked away in his pocket. They went on their way in search of a place to spend the night and soon found themselves at a small camp of Tsarist refugees near a part of the city still scarred by the war. With a few quick words of Russian to explain that they were just fled from there, they were welcomed and permitted to take a small corner of the camp, under the walls of a half-ruined house. There, under the glow of a borrowed lantern, Perseus told Martin what had happened after he left and showed him the bundle.

            “Why did you not mention it to the police?” the Austrian asked.

            “I was worried they might take it in evidence,” Perseus answered. “Anyway, I don’t suppose they care, and the old boy gave it to me expressly.”

            “Hm,” said Martin, a faint crease appearing between his well-trained eyebrows. “What is it, then?”

            “No idea, but he said it was the way to treasure beyond the lot of mortals. Let’s have a look, shall we?”

            He carefully unwrapped the dirty bundle and found that it was a small notebook. Or rather, part of a notebook; the second half or more of the book had been torn away, leaving only the cover and the first few pages. Perseus opened it and read the following on the front leaf:

            “True Narrative of Certain Events in the Brazilian Jungle, by Robert Cooper

Friday Flotsam – Holy Irresponsibility

— I am determined not to comment on the news. I despise mobs, mass movements, and those who enable them, and my great desire is to be able to move to a nice little corner of the country where there aren’t enough people to form moving blobs of collective stupidity and then shut out as much of the insanity as I can.

— This has been a pretty unproductive week for me. I find myself ‘drifting’ quite often. This is where I’m trying to focus on one thing (such as a story or essay), but I somehow get reminded of something quite different and my mind chases after it like a dog after a squirrel. Usually I don’t notice what’s happening until a little later, by which point I have usually lost my train of thought on the original subject. I actually think it’s related to my anxiety issues; my mind’s kind of trained itself to think that if I don’t follow up on some point, I’ll miss something important. Of course, what actually happens is that I don’t get things done, which only makes me more anxious. Feeding the beast again.

The trick, as I see it, is to cultivate a degree of irresponsibility; allowing oneself to say “yeah, I might miss something important, but I can live with that” or “some people might not like this bit of the story; it might not be perfect, or it might offend someone, but oh well; such is life.”

This is, of course, a matter of letting go and trusting God. Trusting God doesn’t mean that we tell ourselves things will work it; it means trusting that He will bring us through it and accept us despite our mistakes and failures, and, consequently, that our failures aren’t really as important as we make them out to be. And if they’re not that important, then of course we shouldn’t worry overmuch about risking them. It’s rather like having a cheat code or a save state in a video game.

Faith allows us this holy irresponsibility. Perfectionism and with it a degree of Phariseeism is, it seems to me, built into a materialistic worldview. For those who must have material success, social acceptance, and generally the good things of this world there is an urgent need to do things right; to be the right kind of person doing the right kind of job and saying the right kind of things. This, it seems to me, is why so many people today are downright terrified of social opprobrium.

For (to depart from my determination for a moment) that is what I see in virtue signaling; in all those corporate behemoths and public figures crying their support of angry mobs, in the politicians who cower and grovel before the barbarians celebrating within their gates, trying vainly to pretend they don’t see what is happening (headline from the BBC: “27 police injured during largely peaceful protests.” In a sane world, that would be a joke). I see fear. Not fear of the mobs, fear of being thought the wrong kind of person. All I see in this and other such things is people on their knees begging and crying and willing to accept any kind of self-abasement not to be cast out, not to be hated, not to be considered “one of those people”.

Well, if you don’t trust in God, anxious perfectionism seems the only option. It’s hard enough to avoid with faith; we shouldn’t be surprised to see it without it. Holy irresponsibility; to be willing and able to shrug at the possibility that you might be doing wrong or that you might be imperfect, is one of the great gifts of Christianity.