The Little Bears of Artemis

These holiday-themed meanderings I keep putting out are starting to make me feel like a greeting card company, but I am trying to reframe it as being bound to the Earth and its relentless calendrical rhythms. That seems better. Today is a good day to run down the most romantic couples in all of literature, which are

1. DAVID BALFOUR AND ALAN BRECK

in Robert Louis Stevenson’s KIDNAPPED, where else. Do you remember the flight over the rocks, when David was too slow and Lowlandish to know how to jump properly even with the brandy singing in his veins, so that Alan had to first put the fear of Alan into him, and then grasp him by his hair and his collar and hoist him bodily into safety?

Do you remember when David was sick and feverish and Alan, in the grip of his own kind of gambling-fever, came and leaned over him, his face to David’s dazed eyes appearing unbearably huge and white like a baleful moon, and got his money away from him and lost it to Cluny, and then David, too sick and stupid to tell Alan how ill he is, nurses his furious and justified resentment and the sick pain in his bosom stabs him with every hard step he takes? Remember how he took such savage pleasure in provoking Alan to the point of violence by whistling ‘Johnnie Cope’ at him, and then, seeing what he had done and seeing that the knot of anger between them could not be slowly and carefully teased apart but must be lanced with a single stroke, punctured like a balloon, threw down his sword and threw himself on Alan’s mercy, the only thing greater than Alan’s pride, but only if you ask him for it, for, like the Vampire, he must be asked? how David said, beseechingly — yet cunningly! cleverly! — that if Alan would not forgive him, he must just die there? how David abandons his pride and wallows in his flamboyant inferiority, because he knows that to bring Alan to his knees with remorse and sentiment he must appeal to Alan’s gallantry, which forgives the weak penitent anything but never will yield to the strong? how Alan grips him and chokes back a sob and tells him now that they’ve quarreled and he’s seen David lose his temper and his control, he likes him better than before?

A lot better than the long bit in DAVID BALFOUR where David, older and wiser, brings himself again to the brink of tears when he saves Catriona from her innocent lusts by manfully frustrating his own. That bit is not bad, and that book is not bad, and David is not even bad for falling in love with someone else who is fiery and principled and true, just like Alan, but not an absolute nightmare, not absolutely, and who doesn’t require so much emotional managing all the time, and who is his own age, too. But it’s not the same.

2. MANTHONY AND THE RED PEARL [2]

“But don’t you mean Manthony and Thereminta”— of course I don’t, Thereminta never loved him. Of course it is also true that the greatest loves are one-sided and Manthony, in the best hysterical style, “has a wish for an unsatisfied wish” and demands to not know what he knows. As a young man disgruntling after Thereminta’s love he once dreamt of losing a limb in a duel so that he might carve her a hoboy out of his own shin-bones and see her cool fingers moving dispassionately over the stops of his fibula, or his tibia as it might be. This was to remain a dream, as all his dealings with Thereminta kept the quality of dreams.

as when Manthony fled to the doubtful sanctuary of an Ursuline convent, braving those Little Bears of Artemis and their terrible claws & terrible jaws. He had to, for he had fallen asleep in the cool grass with his Hessian boots still on (having given his valet a jour de congé) and awoke with moonbeams scalding him right through his lace cuffs, so he ran through the night to an Order bound to hate him as bound to help him. Hours later he awoke, thrashing & raving that he could still smell the moon. As he lifted his eyes from the strong hands tightening the silver'd cords fastening him to the Guest's crescent couch [1], up to the face within the bone-white wimple, did he expect to meet Thereminta's cruel smiling eyes? Reader, he did not.

(because Thereminta, as we knew ever since SPECTRE IN THE PRIORY and suspected even before, was a rationalist who did not even BELIEVE in the moon, [3] & wished to worship nothing, be a priest of no-one. Her sole passion--so far as she discovered her passions to Manthony--to sit in her gazebo lecturing her wolves.)

No!—Manthony, the diamond file to the iron nails of God as they call him, loved Thereminta as a boy and consigned his body to her subgazebœan tomb in death, but as a man he loved the Red Pearl. Remember in MOUSEQUETAIRE IN THE MURDER HOLE when the upperclassmen shaved off his left eyebrow for falsely boasting of his prowess in Old Church Slavonic? then was he inspired to find the Red Pearl that teaches its master to know all tongues, hidden in no oyster but nestled in a single chestnut on a single chestnut tree in a single chestnut grove, marked on no maps. Put the Red Pearl under your tongue and its powers are yours for a time, but dissolve it in champagne and it enters into your very bones--but the treasure is lost.

All other masters of Red Pearl, from dusty antiquity onward used it ruthlessly for their own gain, but always one day reburied it on some unremarked patch of earth where someday a chestnut tree would grow. Manthony alone had the colossal arrogance to try the champagne trick, swallowing the future whole, stealing knowledge not only from the past but from all generations to come. Thus the motto of his House: 'not Jonah, but the Whale.' obscure to some.

So it was that the Red Pearl stuck fast in Manthony, and clove to him, and was to be not the momentary passion of his youth (as it had been for so many, and never will be again for any-one) but the companion of his whole soul, and all accomplished through his blasphemous villainy and the pale wines of France. Manthony! wilt thou deny to posterity, to the sons of your daughters and the daughters of your sons, supposing you have any of each, this wonderful power that the Pearl has so long given to the luckiest souls of generation on generation, shutting up its natural passage from hand to hand like a blockage in a dam? “Aye,” says Manthony, “for it loves me.”

And strangely, though first rudely dissolved and then sent rushing and discorporate through the prison of his veins, the Red Pearl did love him, and freely gave him what gifts it could. I think it was in THE LOTHARINGIAN FRATRICIDE; OR, INCONSTANCY that Manthony was accused of polishing his boots with Champagne, then a capital crime due to the blockade & consequent shortage. "Nay," said Manthony very serious; "but my heart I polish with it 'til all its chambers be smooth and rosy like the Nautilus." and the magistrates, shamed before his eloquence, let him go his liar’s way, boots gleaming like the stars. It was the Red Pearl bade him speak thus.

3. ME AND MR. RIACH

from Robert Louis Stevenson’s KIDNAPPED, where ELSE.

“A small man of about thirty, with green eyes and a tangle of fair hair,” he sulks when he is sober but is kindness itself at all other times. If you remember, when David asked Mr. Riach what his story was, he whistled through his teeth and said, Never had one. I liked fun is all. Then he skipped away out of the fo'castle.

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[1] Among the Little Bears it is the custom to offer the weary traveler a seat of his own, but he must not take it if he cares for his life — “Oh no, it is too fine for me,” you say, and then they say “But we keep it so fine for you, noble Guest,” and then you say “Not for me, but for the next Guest was this fine crescent adorned so invitingly; the cold stone floor is luxury enough for me,” and then they let you kneel on the cold stone floor, out of their greatness of heart. This is so ingrained in most travelers from children’s tales that I believe the Sisters would scarcely know what to do if finally faced with an unwary Guest who said “Thank you, I will,” and sat down. At first. I mean, they would not know what to do, at first. It would come back to them very quickly. The blood remembers.

[2] yes I HAVE recited the stories of Manthony in the Chestnut Groves & Thereminta in the Abbey at least once before. and look, I’m telling them again. how do you like that.

[3] what, hadn’t she ever seen it? of course she had seen it, of course she had SEEN the moon, she knew all about it, but seeing isn’t believing. '“I give the moon everything,” Thereminta liked to say, “except faith.”

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