Sunday, August 1, 2021


 


POLIOPOLIS AND POLIOLAND. 1900


James Macdonald Chaney  (1831-1909)


Gus Heins, mechanic par excellence, has a secret dream.  He wants to soar to the North Pole in a balloon.   His best friend, the narrator of the story, lost track of him due to job constraints after they both graduated from college.  But seven years afterwards, they met fortuitously and resumed their former friendship.  During the interval, Gus's father had died and left him a large farm in the midwest.  Seizing the opportunity to realize his dream, Gus had erected a very large barn and a fully-equipped machine shop and used them to initiate the construction of a balloon.  The narrator had recently been fired from his job and, somewhat reluctantly, agreed to help his friend achieve his goal.  The penultimate product was a sizable balloon with two ten foot wings that flapped, powered by a 33 lb. gas engine made of aluminum, a rudder fabricated from steel and brass and a basket about eight feet square to hold them and their accouterments.

They set off on May 18 and made rapid progress toward Baffin Island.  On the way they pin-pointed the location of the magnetic pole, partly through use of a planetarium:  a device invented by Gus that indicated the positions of the planets, moon and stars in relationship to any location on the Earth's surface.  (This instrument was very similar to the Antikythera orrery discovered just off a Greek island in 1901).  Using the planetarium as a guide, they steered the balloon toward the North Pole, noting the extensive fields of water in a "solidified condition" as they floated above the polar seas.  Several hundred miles later the atmospheric temperature seemed to be alleviating and they soon saw that the ice had vanished.  Flying over the open ocean, they espied a large island in the distance and as they approached it, they saw people scattering away from their proposed landing site.  But, curiousity overwhelming their fear, a crowd soon collected around the descending balloon.  Gus lit up his pipe and, smelling the tobacco, the people were reassured that the balloonists were actually human.  The island was about 125,000 square miles in area with a population of a million persons.  Agriculture was the principal employment, but there were extensive forests of large conifers as well;  one tree topping 367 feet.  Deer, dogs, sheep and fish were abundant and there were seams of precious metals and coal to be found as well.  The citizenry had emigrated five hundred years earlier from Northern Europe, mainly due to economic conditions;  they were trying to get away from what they regarded as oppressive dominance by the upper classes.  Sic:  "the general tendency of the laws is to make the rich richer and the poor poorer".

"Yustavus", a local engineer, befriended them and invited them to stay at his house, which was a prison-like edifice made of stone blocks.  The two adventurers noted that Yus was possessed of a telescope and a sextant that had been left by a polar expedition some fifty years previously.  Friendships developed with the local inhabitants and the visitors soon were accepted as honored guests.  Yus's daughter, Marie, showed interest in the planetarium and other instruments belonging to the newcomers, and Gus went out of his way to demonstrate how they were used.  Gus also was able to invent a few labor-saving devices to ease the life of the people.  He built a self-shuttling system adaptable to any loom which greatly increased the ease and production rate of woolen cloth.  He showed them what a gas engine was like and engineered a lathe for machining screws.

There was a bone of contention in the land, however, involving the official coinage.  Two systems were used, with silver constituting one level of value and gold coins a superior one.  The government tried to pass a law declaring that the gold standard was to be the official purchasing medium, while silver was relegated to a lower status.  The people soon realized that the end result would cause the already rich citizens to become richer and would place the lower classes in dire poverty.  A revolution occurred soon afterwards, during which five conniving politicians were arrested and four of them hung.  (I can't help but think this episode had something to do with the "Gold Standard" question that was occupying the media at that time).

At this point the story takes a sharp left hand turn in front of traffic and dedicates itself to explaining how the planetarium works.  Marie, being very interested in astronomy, learns how to locate all the planets in the solar system at any given time, such information being particularly useful in a land where six months of the year were dark and six months were sunny.  As a moment's reflection would indicate, during the "summer", the sun would circle around the pole without sinking, and during the winter gradually vanish.  Anyway, the book ends with Marie spotting the planet Saturn, which would be observable for the nest 23 years.

This was a very peculiar book.  Why Chaney suddenly decided to not write an ending to his story is somewhat of a mystery.  He was a Presbyterian Minister for 53 years and maybe he found himself caught in a trap of sorts, writing about the intensely scientific realities of the solar system and not paying attention to what he was being paid for.  It was pretty well written, and the explanations of the planetarium were accurate and complicated, but maybe he just got tired of writing.  Anyway, it was interesting and quizzical...

Monday, July 26, 2021



 


BARON TRUMP'S MARVELOUS UNDERGROUND JOURNEY 1893


Ingersoll Lockwood (1841-1918)

Bulger was an intelligent dog, a Pomeranian mix, short with a large head.  His master was shaped like him, with pipestem limbs and an oversized cranium.  One day, browsing in a curio shop, Wilhelm Heinrich Sebastian von Troomp ran across a dusty old manuscript and purchased it.  It was an account by Don Constantino Bartolomeo Strepholofidgeguaneriusfum of an expedition he had once made into a system of caverns located in Northern Russia.  Enthused, Trump determined to trace the Don's steps in spite of his father's disapproval.  Following the information on the map, he traveled east from St. Petersburg by train and peasant cart to a remote village on the Krasnoyarsk Peninsula, where he hired a local farmer to lead him to the Giants Well, as it was termed, in the northern mountains.  Before they arrived at their destination, Yuliana the peasant, terrified by "the black rocks hanging like frowning giants and ogres over their heads, with the dwarf pines for hair, clumps of white moss for eyes, vast, gaping cracks for mouths, and gnarled and twisted roots for terrible fingers, ready to reach down for their poor little weazened frames", ran away, leaving Bulger and Trump to fend for themselves.

The two explorers, after enlisting the services of a local cow as guide, eventually found themselves on the lip of a huge hole, funnel-shaped, that led down into a seemingly bottomless pit.  As it seemed narrow, Trump covered himself with lard and, attaching himself to a one hundred pound rock by a length of rope, pushed the rock over the edge and perforce found himself stuck in the tight spot, unable to move up or down.  Twisting himself around, he managed, corkscrew fashion, to free his body so that it fell a short distance onto a hard surface, which, with the aid of a myriad of spark-emitting lizards, he observed to consist of marble stones, ground flat to form a road surface.  The pair of adventurers followed the road until they arrived at a park-like garden with four fountains illuminating it.  A small person with a large black fan informed them that they were about to enter "Goggleland" and that their greeter was named "Cold Soul" and he was the prime minister of the country ruled by Queen Galaxa.  This Kingdom was totally socialist, with everything owned by the Queen, but all articles as well as food were free to all.  The Gogglites had transparent hearts, so there was no crime.  Each citizen's deepest desires could be seen at a glance.  Disease was rare, the most serious malady, "iburyufrosnia", derived from too much happiness, resulting in uncontrollable laughter that the doctors regarded as the effects of shivering.  Occasionally this was fatal.  The Queen's daughter was called Glow Stone, also known as Crystalina.  She was sad because of a dark spot on her heart, which meant she could never inherit the throne.  Observing closely, Trump saw that the spot was actually red so he used a large piece of ice to magnify the picture , showing the population that she was not, as they all had supposed, ineligible for the succession.

Leaving the rejoicing realm, Trump and Bulger continued on their journey until they espied a large dome flush with yellow light, and a pair of huge silver candelabra, marking the entrance to the land of the "Soodopsies", or the Ant People.  The citizens didn't look like ants, they just acted like them.  They had been driven underground by climate change.  Their city was built of solid silver, found locally in copious seams.  The residents neither could see, hear, or talk, conducting all communication through their acute sense of touch.  They could read, however, feeling letters and sentences with their feet;  books being incised on the surface of the local roadways.  They were a philosophic people, feeling that "vanity is the soil that rulers spring from, resulting in war, greed, hate, and competition".  They felt that dogs were more saner than humans, as their hearts and brains were on the same level.

The marble road ended at a large river, and Bulger and his associate entered a 5X8' turtle shell boat and cast off downstream.  They were attacked by giant white crabs, but Trump scared them off by firing both his pistols underwater, simultaneously.  They arrive at the land of the Koltykwerps (cold bodies) soon after, a country of ice with a large palace of the same element perched upon a terrace, and lit by sunlight reflected through a crack in the mountains and directed down into the cavern.  King Gelidus welcomed them and attributed the inhabitants' presence to the influence of the last ice age which drove them underground from their original home in Greenland.  The Koltykwerps were slow but deep thinkers, regarding others as sick from rapid enthusiasms and fevered imaginations.  An episode with a chimpanzee frozen into a block of ice transpired, which Trump was able to resolve by melting the ice but which ensued in him having to transport the simian around on his back to keep him warm.  After a year in the frozen domain, Bulger sniffs his way to the exit and they find themselves in an unknown, icy passage, creeping carefully along until a ledge gives way, precipitating them into the frigid depths.  They slide down through a train of spark lizard fire and ultimately are deposited once more onto the marble highway.  

They wander along the stone road and meet a man with metal sandals and notice that whenever he moves his head, a sharp click can be heard.  Thus they realize that they're in the land of the Rattlebrains, the fortunate forgetters, as they like to think of themselves.  Knowledge is considered the root of all evil, and the less one knows, the greater his contentment.  Knowledge implies decision which engenders opinion which results in conflict.  Trump and Bulger are only allowed one day in this kingdom.  Nobody would talk to him and they showed him the way out:  a sort of barrel-shaped turnstile which dumped them back into a river.  Pushed by a strong wind, they were ultimately shot out of a large fountain situated in the center of a lake.  Making their way to shore, they found themselves adjacent to a village in NorthEast Siberia.  They had actually traveled 500 miles underneath the Ural mountains.  They caught a train and went home.

Lockwood wrote several of these kinds of fantasy, all of which were quite popular.  One of them, "The Last President" is used today by certain spiritual or psychic groups as a guide to the term of Donald Trump, for better or worse...  I was under the impression that this effort was a sort of imitation of the Tales of Baron Munchausen, which it resembles quite a bit, but there are philosophical and political references that suggest the author had the limitations of human society and intellect in mind while he wrote it.  It was very original in conception, i thought, being unlike similar works i've read lately in the floridity of its language and ideas.  i liked it quite a bit...

Sunday, July 18, 2021




 

THE WAIF OF THE CYNTHIA

Andre Laurie (1844-1909)

Jules Verne (1828-1905)


In the small village of Noroe in northwestern Norway, the Herseboms lived as fisherfolk, trolling for cod to satisfy the national demand for cod liver oil, fostered by Dr. Schwaryencrona, a scholar and medicinal entrepreneur of Stockholm, who was an advocate of its health-giving properties.  There were five family members:  Mr. and Mrs. Hersebom and their children, Vanda, Otto, and Erik.  Erik was the youngest, and had been adopted when father Hersebom found him as a baby, floating in the water near the Faroe Islands, in a basket tied to a buoy on which "Cynthia" was inscribed.  His origins were a mystery, but he was welcomed in spite of his small, dark mien which contrasted sharply with the blond cragginess displayed by the rest of the family.  Erik was a gifted student in the local school, and when he celebrated his fifteenth birthday, Dr. Schwaryencrona convinced the Herseboms to let him move to Stockholm to further his education.

Two years passed and Erik's curiousity about his real parents was conflicting with his studies.  With the help of the doctor, he'd discovered that the Cynthia was a Canadian ship that had been lost near the Faroe Islands seventeen years previously after leaving New York City.  The doctor agreed to accompany Erik to America to do some research on the vessel's history and hopefully to obtain clues as to Erik's lost parents.  From a hotelier, a Mr. Bowles, they learned that the sole survivor of the wreck had been a certain Patrick O'Donoghan, a common sailor who disappeared years ago.  Back home in Stockholm, they published an advertisement in some of the world's largest newspapers offering 500 lbs. for information leading to Mr. O'Donoghan's location.

In answer to the ad, they received a visit from a Mr. Tudor Brown who claimed that Pat had been a crewman on his yacht, the Albatross, but had drowned several years ago.  Brown was a tall skinny person with red hair and a secretive, sneering look about him that led Erik and his friends to distrust him.  Several more years passed and in 1878 Dr. Schwaryencrona received a letter from a friend who was a member of the Nordenskiold expedition trying to open up a passage north of Russia, in an attempt to secure a shorter route to the Orient.  The letter stated that while sojourning with the natives at the mouth of the Lena river, they had met a man with "Patrick O'Donoghan-Cynthia" tatooed on his chest. 

Erik, aided by his associates, decides to search for the Vega, which was now ice bound close to the Bering Strait.  They purchase an ice-breaking steamer, the Alaska, and as they are about to leave, Mr. Brown appears with a detailed collection of charts he offers to them for a very good price.  They accept with some hesitance, and, deciding to reach the Bering Straits by traveling through the Suez Canal, they leave port and head south.  A storm is encountered near Brest and the ship runs aground.  After managing to free it at high tide, they look at the charts given them by Brown and realize that they've been altered intentionally, apparently with the objective of obstructing Erik's voyage.  Consulting with the others, Erik decides to defeat Brown's dastardly machinations by taking the Alaska through the Northwest Passage, west of Greenland.  With difficulty, they succeed in reaching the Vega, only to find out that the Albatross was three days ahead of them.

A chase ensues across the top of the Russian coast, past the Krasnoyarsk peninsula and into the Kara Sea, where the Alaska finally catches up with the Albatross.  A cannon duel ensues, with a minimal amount of destruction on either side, until, near the edge of the pack ice, a storm brews up and both ships are sunk, leaving Erik and his father (Mr. Hersebom) alone on an ice floe.  They cast about and find some supplies and the body of a sailor from the Albatross who they discover is Bowles, a pseudonym for Patrick O'Donoghan, the seaman's real identity.  The body opens its eyes and is about to tell Erik his story when Brown sneaks up and shoots him.  Mr. Hersebom immediately shoots Brown, killing him.  Sometime later, they hear the sound of a cannon and upon reaching the edge of the ice, see that the Alaska has not been sunk after all.  They climb aboard and sail home to national acclaim as they are the first ship to have achieved a "circumpolar Periplus":  sailing around the world through both Northern Passages.

Erik, back in Noroe, receives a letter from his real grandfather, informing him of the events that occurred before and during the sinking of the Cynthia, and mentioning that his mother was yet alive and living in Brittany.  Erik joins them and finds out that his father had struck it rich in the oil field and that Tudor Brown, trying to steal his rights in the property, had sabotaged the Cynthia and had attempted to murder his relations.  The book ends with Erik engaged to Vanda.

Andre Laurie, according to one source, wrote the book originally, but Verne rewrote it at a later period.  It did rather read like a Verne work, with his phraseology and structure, but that could have been due to the translation.  At any rate, Laurie (a pen name;  his real name was Jean Francois Paschal Grousset) was apparently well known in France toward the end of the nineteenth century as a fantasist and novelist.  Unfortunately only a couple of his 41 books have been rendered in English.  It was a great story, though, and i enjoyed it a lot...

Monday, July 12, 2021



 1500 MILES PER HOUR

Charles Dixon (1858-1926)

The unidentified narrator was conducting some investigations in the Sahara with two Bedouin assistants when they were caught in a sandstorm.  Buried under the wind-blown detritus, they were astounded by an enormous explosion.  When things quieted down, they observed that a large, three foot meteor had landed several yards from them.  It was of a strange consistency and had cracks on one side, which the curious natives immediately began banging on, presuming something rare to be inside.  And sure enough, they found a tightly rolled manuscript in a sort of iron container, which told of an expedition to Mars (actually known as Gathma) by four English persons some years previously.  Dr. Hermann of Yorkshire, together with his friends John Temple and Harry Graham and his estate manager Sandy Campbell, not to mention Rover the dog, had, after many years of experimentation, built a rocketship with which they intended to voyage to Mars.  It was a complicated device, called an electric air carriage, built in the doctor's barn and driven by a combination of paddles and propeller.  A generator set provided the power.  It was of a conical shape, forty feet tall, and designed to maintain a constant speed of 1500 miles an hour.  The adventurers calculated that the trip would take two and a half years to complete, and they crammed it full of condensed food and drink.  A special condenser was designed to convert the ether (which occupied outer space) into breathable air.

The rocket (named "Sirius") left Earth on May 1, 1875.  The journey was fraught with adventures and difficulties.  Once a piston pin fell out of the condenser motor, and later one of the windows was leaking air, requiring a space walk to be repaired.  Graham, wearing a deep sea diver's helmet, accidentally fell off while working on it, but managed to grab a rope that was trailing along behind the ship.  They ran through a meteor shower at one point but experienced no serious damage even though some magnetic dust had collected on the balcony (installed on the upper level of the vessel, meant to provide viewing capability from a safe stance once Mars was reached) which ignited and caused globes of purple fire to bounce off the rocket's shell.

They landed in a sort of marshy swamp full of reeds and red plants and occupied by large monsters with large teeth and eye stalks.  Since Sirius was stuck in the mud, they unpacked their rubber boat and paddled across a local lake to a beach covered with translucent colored pebbles, emeralds, diamonds and the like.  Spending the night, they were bemused by the singing butterflies and marsupial birds.  Once they saw a tall skinny greyhound type of beast that was three time as tall as an elephant.  Traveling over the mountains the next day, they saw in the distance a large city with huge golden domes.  Spires, bridges and jeweled castles decorated the scene, contrasting vividly with the surrounding red forest of tall, thin trees.

The four travelers lived with the Martians (they were 9 feet tall) in relative harmony except for being jailed for mistakenly shooting one of the guards who had pointed a weapon at them.  But relations went along swimmingly until Graham fell in love with the King's daughter and came into conflict with one Prince Perodii, who convinced the King that the visitors were anathema.  As a result, they were all, including Rover, sealed up inside the ship, then transported to the top of an active volcano and shoved off the ledge into the boiling lava percolating inside the caldera.  But, of course, they managed to fly the ship out and escape.  They traveled about 200 miles before the Sirius ran out of juice.  They continued west on foot, but were pursued by Perodii and his minions into a large cavern and eventually captured.

Back in Edos (the Martian city), Graham and Perodii fought and the latter lost;  Graham received the King's permission to marry his daughter only if he consented to undergo the rite of fire which would make him immortal.  He submitted to the torment, married the daughter, and was appointed Prince.  The other three voyagers made a home in Edos and spent their time in researches and experiments in collaboration with the Martian scientists.  They meant to build another ship with which to return to Earth, as the Sirius had been destroyed by Perodii.  So the story ends, with the future in a fair amount of doubt.

This was an amusing book, not terribly instructive but imaginative and ingenious.  I couldn't help but be reminded of Verne's tale of "From the Earth to the Moon":  it had the same sort of atmosphere, emphasizing the intrepidity and inventiveness of the courageous Englishmen, conquering and dominating unknown regions to the glory of the English nation (well French, in Verne's vision).  And the process that Graham goes through to become immortal greatly resembles the incident in "She" when the Queen is immortalized in the same sort of transfiguration.  So, even though there were echoes of former authors, the formula was still an exciting one and the book was well worth reading.  I'm surprised it's not more well known.  I wonder if E.R. Burroughs read it before writing his Mars books...

Sunday, July 4, 2021



 


AFTER LONDON

Richard Jeffries  (1848-1887)

The first part of the book describes a geological transformation called "The Change" that occurred in England some hundreds of years before the story begins.  Because the Thames became silted up downstream of London, the river backed up and flooded not only the city on a permanent basis, but also the surrounding countryside, the fens, and even central England.  Somehow the central highlands vanished, leaving a large, island-dotted lake that extended north and south, from the moors almost to the Scottish border.  The Severn ceased to flow as well because the ancillary streams and rivulets carried the erosional effluvia from the abrading mountains downstream and plugged it up.  

Humanity survived and recovered from the disaster to establish a sort of medieval society, based on local satrapies and loose allegiances that served to protect walled villages ("Baronies" as they were known) from foreign invaders.  Constant warfare was the general rule, with the Welsh and Scots continuously making forays on the English settlements.  In addition, Bushmen and Gypsies made traveling by horse, cart, or foot through the extensive forests surrounding the lake normally hazardous.  Science and Technology were non-existent and the inhabitants explained incomprehensible occurrences as the result of magic.

Felix Aquila and his two brothers lived in a Barony close to a small river.  Their father, the Baron, was not an enthusiastic utilizer of power, preferring to allow his small estate to run itself.  To Felix, life was utterly boring, so he built a canoe and set off on an exploration of the lake.  He was in love with a neighboring Baron's daughter, Aurora Thyma, but although she reciprocated, he knew there was no chance of them getting together because her father was ambitious and wanted to use her to advance his holdings via an appropriate marriage.  So Felix was looking for a way to make himself acceptable to her dad.

Initially his plan was to visit Isembard, a powerful King on the other side of the lake, hoping to achieve fame and/or position congruent with Aurora's father's expectations.  After being stuck in the mud and evading a ship full of pirates, he left the canoe in a hidden encampment and walked to the city of Iwis, where Isembard was besieging a castle belonging to one of his neighbors.  Felix soon realized that the armored knights as well as the King and officers of the court were totally incompetent.  They spent most of their time drinking and making ineffective raids on the castle walls with not enough assailants to achieve any sort of victory.  When Felix tried to straighten them out (he suggested a catapult), he was arrested and threatened with dire physical harm.  So he managed to escape and made his way back to the canoe and set off toward the North.

He was caught by a west wind and driven into a wide embayment in which he noticed that all the birds were flying opposite to the way he was traveling.  And all the greenery seemed to be drying up.  He became more alarmed when the water turned black and the air became misty with a noxious and deadly miasma.  He finally landed on a rocky beach and after walking about for a while, came to feel rather woozy and light-headed.  The ground was all black and stuck to his feet and there were no birds or any other signs of animal life.  So he retraced his steps, feeling worse all the time, and barely made it back to the canoe.  Luckily, the wind had changed so it helped blow him out of the danger zone.  It was only then that he realized he had been exposed to the deadly region that now occupied what was originally the city of London.  Millions of bodies and toxic chemicals had been buried by the silt from the mountains and the entire district was devoid of life and deadly to any form of sentient being.  The poisonous gases from underground pervaded the entire area and made it a tenebrous death-trap.

Traveling south, Felix happened upon several sheep herders and finding them friendly and courteous, went with them to their main campsite, where he met the leader of a large group of persons who made their livings by herding and trading sheep.  He spent several weeks with them and learned that their principal danger came from marauding bands of Gypsies, who stole sheep and tried to murder them.  So Felix introduced them to archery, which art was not very well known in that world.  At one point he stood off a band of 200 raiders with his bow and arrow:  apparently the sudden apparition of a totally unknown technology convinced them that he was a magician.  The sheepherders were so impressed that they made him King.  (Spoiler, of a sort, ahead). So, after sojourning with them for a number of months, he departed to make his way back to Aurora's demesne with the purpose of eloping with her back to his new Kingdom where he intended for them to live happily ever after.

The book came to sort of an abrupt end, with Felix traveling west.  There were a number of loose ends that were never addressed.  What was going to happen to Felix's home Barony?  And what if Aurora's dad still wouldn't let her go?  And were Felix's two brothers going to live with him?  And how would they live once they got back to the sheepherder Kingdom.  Would Aurora like spending her life with a bunch of smelly sheep and not having a real house?  But Jeffries was probably not concerned with those sorts of mundane questions.  He was a naturalist and loved animals, birds, forests and meadowlands.  The book was filled with acute and knowledgeable comments on bird habits and animal behavior.  In reality, it was pretty obvious, reading along, that he was a lot more interested in the wildlife than in the ignorant humans.  I wish he'd suggested any sort of basis for the geological transformation of the countryside;  it was provocative and interesting, but not very realistic, England being made up of formations dating from the early Paleozoic to the late Mesozoic eras and dipping to the west.  It would take a major cataclysmic revolution of modern geologic thought to produce the kind of derangements he had in mind.  Good book, though...


Sunday, June 27, 2021



 THE TWO ADMIRALS

James Fenimore Cooper. (1789-1851)


"...when the English flagship came sweeping past in a cloud of smoke, and a blaze of fire.  His own broadside was nobly returned, or as much of it as the weather permitted, but the smoke of both discharges was still driving between the masts, when the dark hamper of the Carnatic glided into the drifting canopy, which was made to whirl back on the devoted Frenchman in another torrent of flame.  Three times was this fearful assault renewed on the Scipio, at intervals of about a minute..."

If the above description pleases, you'd probably like this book, but it's not all thunder and mayhem.  The action takes place in the middle of the 18th century, beginning at a signal station on the coast of Devonshire in a small village named Wychecombe.  Master Dutton lives at the station with his wife and daughter Mildred.  Sir Wycherly Wychecombe is the aged land-owner and ruling baronet of the area.  He's a bachelor and at 85 years old, and there's some question as to who will inherit the estate when he's gone.  He had five brothers but they are all deceased.  the eldest had a son out of wedlock named Tom, who's eager to take over his uncle's property, but he's not liked by most people, being sneaky and  dishonest.  

The Baronet visits the Duttons to see if any ships have arrived in the small harbor.    He finds an emergency situation:  another Wycherly Wychecombe, this one from Virginia, has fallen over the cliff in front of the station and has landed on a ledge about thirty feet down.  He'd been talking with Mildred and had lost his balance while trying to pick a flower just over the edge.  After a certain amount of dithering, the Master and the Baronet rig up a rope and rescue him.  There's been a bit of fog hovering over the site and when it lifts, they see that a fleet has entered the shallow anchorage. There are two Admirals in charge of the battleships, Rear Admiral Oakes and Vice Admiral Bluewater.  The two grew up together in the Royal Navy, beginning as Midshipmen and serving in different vessels until they were both promoted at approximately the same time.  Oakes is a die-hard Naval Officer, while Bluewater, although just as competent, has Jacobite leanings.  This is the era in which Bonny Prince Charlie was about to land in Scotland in order to reclaim the British throne.

At a large dinner to welcome the fleet to the area, the Baronet has a stroke and dies.  Since he has no heirs, he leaves all his worldly goods and estate to the other Wycherley, him being a distant relation even though he's a colonial.  Tom has forged a marriage certificate to prove that he's the legitimate heir, but it's generally recognized as being fake.  Wycherley has fallen in love with Mildred and is about to declare himself when news arrives that the French are "out", meaning a French fleet has entered the English Channel.  The two Admirals make their plans:  the fleet is to be split into two halves in order to attack the French from two sides at once.  Sir Oakes leaves first with five ships, and engages the enemy, fulling expecting Bluewater to back him up once the engagement has begun.  But Bluewater has been approached by other Jacobites and there is danger of him sailing away up the Channel to aid Prince Charles.

Oakes can't believe his long-term friend would desert him in a crisis, but he fights a losing battle against the overwhelming French forces.  Things are about to look even bleaker, when...

(Will Bluewater arrive in time to rescue his friend?  Will Mildred and Wycherley marry?  Will Tom manage to take over his uncle's estate?  Will the Prince defeat all comers and acquire the English throne?  et alia...)

Cooper is a much better writer than Marryat.  He is one of those authors who can detail out a meticulous plot while interjecting interesting side comments at the same time on human affairs and human behavior.  Reading his work is like listening to an authority on whatever subject might lie under discussion, be it seamanship, surveying, hunting, anthropology, politics, exploration, farming,  or geography.  The result being a three or four dimensional impression, instead, as in Marryat's case, one limited to two dimensions.  Granted, his prose style gets a bit weedy sometimes, but that serves as a sort of bottomless receptacle for his multiphasic interpolations.  Reading his work is an adventure of the best sort.  Try it, you'll like it...

Sunday, June 20, 2021






THE KING'S OWN

Captain Frederic Marryat. (1792-1848)


The Nore Mutiny in 1797 saw the rebellion of 40,000 sailors complaining about their brutal treatment by the statutes and officers of the British Navy.  One of the leaders, Edward Peters, was flogged around the fleet and later falsely accused of stealing a watch for which he was hung from a yardarm.  His wife died shortly after but his son was adopted by a kindly ole bosun's mate, Adams.  He tatooed Willy, as the son was called, on his right shoulder with the king's broad arrow(shown above) so as to indicate his position as an employee in good standing with the Navy department.  At the same time they changed his last name to Seymour, so as to disassociate him from the recent unpleasantness.  He was officially enlisted as a midshipman at the age of six, when he showed his mettle, while his ship was engaged in a cutting out action on the coast of France, by rolling a live shell overboard during a cannonade and thereby saving the Captain's life.   

Later he was returning to England in a small boat to deliver messages and to get his uniform, when a sudden gale capsized the boat and cast him adrift.  He was picked up by a sleek sailing sloop, the Sainte Vierge, a smuggler captained by M'Elvina, a past master at evading official notice.  They became good friends and M'Elvina sent him to school in France for five months where he acquired the French language and the basic ABC'S.  Three years later, M'Elvina's boat was sunk and he quit smuggling, having acquired the wherewithal to move into a quiet cottage in the country which just happened to adjoin the property of Lord de Coucy. 

De Coucy was an irritable old curmudgeon who didn't like anybody and refused to make a will.  Therefore, when he died shortly after the M'Elvina's moved there, all his vast holdings went to his nephew Rainscourt instead of to Willy Seymour, who was his grandson.  Rainscourt was a wastrel and gambling fiend who was constantly in massive debt as well as being mean to his wife and daughter, Emily.  When he inherited the estate, he moved to London while the balance of his family stayed in the country mansion, or in the de Coucy Castle on the coast of Ireland.

Meanwhile, Willy has enlisted in the Royal Navy and he was appointed midshipman again in the frigate Aspasia.  The first tour of duty was to the West Indies, where they surveyed reefs north of the Bahamas for three years.  Sudden gales and the occasional pirate added spice to the otherwise rather somnolent occupation.  Willy went to visit M'Elvina when he got a chance to return to England and fell in love with Emily, but their relationship was discouraged by all since Willy was regarded as a commoner who was not a satisfactory mate for a rich heiress.

So he rejoined his ship which sailed for the Far East, stopping in Calcutta, Bombay, Sumatra, and points in between.  Years later when they were returning to England, the ship was caught in a major storm off the coast of Ireland.  At the same time, they spotted a French ship of the line which was battling the same hurricane force winds.  But the captain saw his duty as showing fight regardless of the weather, and in the ensuing engagement, both ships were wrecked on the Irish coast.  Bad things occurred and the book's ending was not a happy resolution.

Marryat is one of my favorite authors.  He was admired by Conrad,  Mark Twain, and Hemingway and he was a good friend of Charles Dickens.  This was his second book, published in the early 19th C., and i have to say it was just an awful book.  The story could have been artistically and logically related in a quarter of the 400 pages it occupied.  The plot was ignored for many pages, the author at one point chortling to himself over having written a whole chapter without once mentioning anything germane to the storyline.  The sea battles and storms were described with the accuracy and vividness with which the author is famed, but those descriptions didn't begin to make up for the messy nastiness of the rest of the book.  I wouldn't have read it except for having a copy and having read almost everything else he wrote, which works were nearly all excellent and well written.  I'm just grateful that he got this sort of unpleasantness out of the way before he produced his other magnificent sagas and travel diaries.  I wouldn't advise anyone to read this one, but i heartedly recommend any of his others.