Sir Andrew Caldecott: A Victim of Medusa

I am no student of aetiology, but lying in my hot bath of a wintry morning and watching the steam precipitate on the window-panes I am struck by the fact that the resultant rivulets seldom if ever follow the same courses today as they did yesterday. It is remarkable how often a down-speeding globule of water will unforseeably take an abrupt turn to right or left, as does the electric fluid in a discharge of lightning. There must, of course, be cause for each twist and turn, though unperceivable, and similarly there must be cause for every twist and turn of human experience. Such causes can seldom be sensed with certainty even by the human agent, or patient, whose behaviour is determined by them: their recognition by an outside observer is still more problematical. Nevertheless, I believe myself to have stumbled on connected links in a chain of events that culminated in the sudden and violent death of my bachelor cousin, Herbert Sidden, at the age of forty-three.

The coroner’s verdict was death by misadventure. Herbert had been knocked down and killed where the footpath from Haddenham Green used to cross the railway on the level. The present footbridge was erected after (possibly because of) the accident. On rounding the curve by the tile factory the driver of a down excursion train saw him stooping right in the middle of the track. Though he blew his whistle, Herbert never moved and a few seconds later a broken bleeding body lay in the six-foot way. Nobody else witnessed the fatality and the only object found by the police on the sleepers of the crossing was, irrelevantly enough it seemed, a jellyfish. This, it was ascertained, had dropped from the toy bucket of a small boy on his way home from paddling. Possibly, the coroner remarked, the deceased had slipped on it; but there was no evidence to support the conjecture.

There was certainly no ground for suspicion of suicide. My cousin had inherited a comfortable income, and his enjoyment of it as a leisured litterateur was without ill health or other detraction. Of his numerous acquaintances many would have welcomed a greater intimacy, but he inclined towards seclusion rather than society. In myself he seemed to take a mild cousinly interest suggestive more of curiosity than of liking. It was, therefore, a surprise to find that he had left me five thousand pounds, free of duty, together with the whole of his not inconsiderable library. During my inspection of its contents I came across the two manuscript volumes and a scrapbook which, if I am not mistaken, afford clues to the problem of the testator’s end.

The older manuscript book, much smudged and dog-eared, bears in an unformed hand the endorsement ‚prayrs and pomes‘; the second is headed in firm well-written capital letters ‚JUVENILIA‘. Between their respective contents there is great difference both in matter and style. Verses in the earlier have an authentic ring of childhood and the sentiments which they express are neither affected nor precocious. They are devoid of punctuation, as the following five examples will show:

Example (1)
plese help me god
to be quite good
and never rude
or cross or odd
so when i die
or the werld ends
we may be freinds
up in the sky *

* Note. At first reading I thought the order of the rhyming strange for a small boy, but I afterwards remembered that he must have sat through many sermons in the family pew at Haddenham confronted by a mural tablet whose inscription ended with:

There lyeth here
But dust and bone:
The soul is flown
To Heaven’s sphere.

Example (2)
I felt sad and Mary cried
when the poor canarry died
we berried him in the chiken run
and hated god for what bed done

Example (3)
in saxling church on Saturday
we herd aunt madge the organ play
she did the hyms a trifle sadly
the sarms and other peices badly

Example (4)
the railway carrage keeps quite still
but things outside it fly
mile on mile pole after pole
the telygraff wires streak by
up and down, down and up
scratching along the sky
a bush comes sliding down the hedge
the fence dives into a pond
green woods like catapillers crorl
eating the hills beyond

Example (5)
yesterday we found a jellifsh
nanny said it were a smelly fish
so we berried it in sand
the funarel was grand
nanny says she does not know
where good jellifishes go
but she thort the chances are
that jellifsh is now a star

In contrast to the foregoing, the verses in ‚Juvenilia‘ are patently not the work of a child, even if a moiety of them may perhaps have been written in revision of earlier efforts or have reflected memories of childhood. They leave the impression that their author must have taken pains to trick them out for grown-up recital or even perhaps for publication. Two specimens of such fake-stuff will suffice.

As we went walking down the town
Whom should we meet but Mr Brown?
Auntie says that she has never
Met a person half as clever,
So we thought that he’d know what
She and Uncle Tom do not:
Why God allows good men to die
And how do babies come and why.
But Mr Brown behaved so queerly;
He made a face and said ‚O really!‘

Out of proper respect for you, Sir,
I shall call you Mr Medusa
(A name that I took
From our animal book);
Gentlemen in Debrett or Kelly
Don’t have names like Fish, A. Jelly—

The sophistication of this last piece is in strong contrast to the naïveté of ‚funarel‘. I have selected these two verses for special citation and reference because no less than four of the ‚pomes‘ and nine of the ‚Juvenilia‘ contain allusions to jellyfish or medusae. They appear, indeed, to have become an obsession. In the Juvenilia, for instance, there is a painful parody of Shelley’s ‚Skylark‘ beginning, ‚Hail to thee, blithe jelly, Fish thou never wert‘; and, even worse, a travesty of an Easter hymn in which the terminal Hallelujahs are replaced by ‚Jellyhoohahs‘.

Pastings in the scrap-book show a similarly large proportion of newspaper and magazine cuttings on the same subject and even excerpts from books. For example, there is an account taken from the Southshire Daily News of the 17th September, 1902, of an experimental tank for sea anemones and jellyfish in the Bournepool aquarium, and a letter from a correspondent to the Borehaven Gazette recording measurements of a giant jellyfish found on the beach below Corley Head. Its diameter was exactly the length of the correspondent’s umbrella stick. In another cutting a ‚Lover of Nature‘ reported having seen a weasel emerge from a tamarisk hedge, dash down the muddy bank of a creek and return with a jellyfish in its mouth. It is indeed amazing that a man of my cousin’s intelligence and education should have accumulated such a litter of nonsense and misinformation. His childhood’s prayer against becoming ‚odd‘ had clearly been unanswered.

Oddities of taste and interest seldom conduce to mental or psychological well-being. In Herbert’s case the jellyfish motif appears to have become queerly associated with his tendency to dabble in clairvoyance and mysticism, as the following typewritten entry in the scrap-book will illustrate. It is headed in his handwriting: ‚Copied from Captain Philip Smythe’s Geographical and Historical Relation of a Hitherto Undescribed Island in the South Seas, London, MDCCIV.‘

The natives on this coast are adept soothsayers and tellers of fortune, to which end they employ divers ingenious devices; whereof I deem this peculiar to them that whenever there be high winds and sea they will diligently search the beaches for jellyfishes of which (there being in that region no diurnal rise nor fall of tides) none will be stranded in fair weathers. The same being found they will in no wise move or touch lest it lose virtue thereby but will bring to it a seer or magus for his divination. If the number of coloured rings within the transparency be fewer or greater than four, which is the common order, it is held of excellent augury for a revelation. The magus will regard the fish without nictitation until the coloured rings appear to him to turn in a revolution contrary to that of the sun, when he will cry in the native tongue ‚camphui‘, that is, ‚I descend!‘ Any that be with him shall then keep silence until he say ‚timphui‘, that is, ‚I ascend!‘; whereafter he will recite to them the revelation, if one there be. In the mean space he will have fallen into a dream or trance, the manner of which was thus explained to me. The apparent rotation of the rings will by slow degrees become a gyration of the whole substance, waxing faster and yet more fast, until the magus is as a man gazing into a vortex wherein he soon feels sucked down into utter darkness. If a prophecy be vouchsafed he will now hear it as if chanted from afar; but if there be no prophecy he will hear but a hissing and seething of waters whereat he shall not tempt the oracle beyond its sufferance but cry forthwith ‚timphui‘ and declare that there is no revelation. If any should tempt the oracle unduly or misstate the message given he will haply suffer the fate that befell the arch-magus Rangitapha as described on page 57 of this Relation.

Beneath this excerpt my cousin had written a note as follows: ‚N.B. I have not troubled to copy the account of Rangitapha’s death as it was clearly brought about by quite ordinary misadventure.‘

My last selection from the scrap-book will be of a final entry in my cousin’s handwriting, initialed by him over a date some two months prior to his end. It runs thus:

I fancy that my experiments in divination by medusae would strike most people as folly and waste of time. I find them, however, of absorbing interest and am deeply grateful to old Willerton for lending me Smythe’s South Seas Relation. I suppose the process to be akin to crystal-gazing but for me the results have so far been more encouraging. I have twice now heard the hissing of waters in the vortex and yesterday afternoon a medusa, dropped by some child on the old barge wharf, yielded an even more promising reward for my mental and ocular concentration. This probably indicates that I now achieve a more complete and effective abstraction than when I first started my experiments. Be that as it may, I yesterday distinctly and unmistakably heard, above the hiss and gurgle of waters, the screech of a locomotive whistle and roar of a train. Unfortunately, the hissing and gurgling caused me to call ‚timphui‘ before there was any further development and I must now possess my soul in patience until another marooned medusa turns up to tell me what the engine whistle and roar of a train can have portended. I shall not allow myself to be cheated of a prophecy again by ’noises off‘.

Since reading the above I have had little doubt as to the causation of my cousin’s death. I am thankful to believe that it must have been instantaneous and painless. The shadow cast before it by a coming event is mercifully not always recognisable.



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