I have seen the entrails of a lizard float by on the lachrymose air of Van Diemen’s Land, a perilous pearl of lugubrious luminescence that swooned numinously on the summer breeze; I have seen the pendulous jowls of a lascivious lemur wag discreetly at its mate in the inmost depths of the Malagasy desert; I have seen newts copulating in Borneo, their pupils ecstatically slitted and their livid maws half open in a wild surmise. But this took the biscuit.

Ere I proceed it would be best to disavow any intention of being mawkish or lurid. Sober reportage, reader, is the be all and end all of the present endeavour, and if it strikes you as we proceed that there is anything outlandish in my narrative you may rest assured that it all took place just as I relate it in sober fact. Embellishment is no part of my enterprise. With this admonition I proceed.

She lay spreadeagled on the reed mattress, bare as a twig, with an expression of the utmost felicity on her ruddy visage, gazing gleefully at nothing; and entwined briskly if ponderously round her sprawling limbs was — dare I say it? — a sinuous and majestic specimen of the Andaman Devil Python. I knew it by the lozenge in its crest.

The monster was twenty ells in length if it was a farthing, and muscled and besinewed like nobody’s business. And this slithering beast had wrapped its inexorable coils around the innocent girl’s every limb and aperture, and was in the very act, as I plainly saw, of squeezing the life’s blood out of her.

I whipped out my pistol with a shout; but before I could aim I felt a sudden sting in my right biceps, and as I went weak in the knees I had just time to see the ranee, with a lurid leer in her fevered eye, put aside a little wooden pipe before yielding again to the devilish embraces of the serpentine brute.

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The Peregrinations of Philip Farthingale may be said to have had their beginning on that fateful November day in 18–, when a grisly and unctuous rain was swiveling down upon the metropolis and all London was awash in a murky mist. Cabmen scurried like ninepins into the public houses and whores, sighing, betook themselves to the hashish dens of turgid iniquity which littered the thoroughfares of that sinful city. Desuetude was in the air and not a debonair barrister or innkeeper but footed it along the splattering pavements like a fleet and tipsy toreador. All of which is to say that it was a London November.

But lo! among the pale impecunious figures one ragabash could have been descried, had anyone &c., scurrying down the alleyways like a bedraggled squirrel, clad in a tattered greatcoat of munificent proportions and wielding in his well-nigh frost-benumbed fingers a furled whalebone umbrella. Whether the inspissated state of this article were due to a mechanical failure or to some dark desire for mortification on the part of its macabre proprietor were a question to be debated on some drier even; now there was nothing for it but haste, as our murky protagonist shuffled squelchily through the gloomy gloopy globules of the rain.

But whither? and wherefore? and moreover who is this nameless apparition of the borborygmous night, I hear the varied reader ask?

It shall be told. But first it were well, impetuous reader, to get us somewhere dry.

The landlord of the Frog and Withers shook himself ponderously, like a bedraggled Alsatian that has at long last betaken itself with long-awaited frivolity to the fleeting security of its master’s bedchamber, or like a melancholy Benedictine muttering maledictions, as he shuffled creakily to the door. The sight that met his bleary eyes was not of a nature to warm the cockles of the heart, were he in possession of such an article.

A grim walrus moustache besmirched with Piccadilly soot; a pair of bristly blubbery lips, the colour of old jelly, moistly ajar; a chin of stubble and strife, where goats might safely graze; a mud-bespattered cravat bestriding a grizzled greatcoat of fake Florentine leather; boots of a scandalous and wholly inadmissible putridity; the whole crowned by a fetid and feculent fedora, battered to a gelatinous glob by the inclement elements, below which burned a pair of preternaturally fiery eyes.

No sooner had the landlord’s staggering senses perceived this monstrosity in the full panoply of its horror than the visitor, stepping across the threshold with a brisk squelch, raised his furled whalebone umbrella and pointed it full at the good proprietor’s belly.

– A room, sirrah, growled he, in a voice rendered turgid by emotion.

Mr Phillimore (for such was the landlord’s name) was a man of a stolid and phlegmatic disposition, not inclined toward quarrelsomeness, indeed a man of an exemplary meekness and mansuetude (qualities which his gruesome exterior belied). Yet in his roseate visage, descried nebulously through the gloaming, a glint of steely resolve might have been descried, had any been present to descry it. He had gritted his teeth and now braced himself to receive the onslaught of this odd and impecunious visitor of the meek midnight, a character of the lowest pretensions no doubt and indeed such as even Mr Punch himself might have shuddered to descry, looming in the gloomy gloaming like a full moon in a cape of deepest dusk. Enshrouded he was in ashen black, a smidgen of starry sable upon the hem of his generous gown and here and there a gleaming glowing button like a deathly dire beetle of the soundless night. Such a depth of discord as this astounding apparition stirred up in our prim proprietor’s bosom cannot be described, though abler pens than mine were to attempt it; a horrible premonition crept through him that here, perhaps, on this night of nights his daemon had come for him; he shivered, and not with the cold.

– Flibbertigibbets, mouthed the malignant stranger. Hast heard, thou villainous quivering obsequious wretch? Be off with you! See that you try not the patience of your betters. — Zounds! muttered the figure, as if to himself. A most vile and cretinous cur this.

It was not without dismay that the landlord tramped off to secure the requisite requirements. He had intended to stand his ground before this nocturnal apparition, had even had in mind a curt rebuke or withering riposte that should put this gibbering visitor in his place; but when it came to it he had found himself quite quaking with abjectitude before the man’s ferocious visage. Off he went, mumbling quaint curses with a dignified air.

And ere he returns it were well, reader, to provide certain necessary reminiscences concerning the quiddity and provenience of our mud-bespattered bogeyman.

His name, as has been established, was Philip Farthingale; his country, England. But whither, whence and wherefore was he bound on such a night of dirt and damnation? For it is certain, from his masterful mien and haughty demeanour, that this is no mere London beggar or wheedling urchin we are dealing with, but a man of birth and means. Of birth — yes, for his accents betray an innate nobility for all the fierce ferocity of his words; and means — for we have espied, have we not, reader, when he raised his finger in admonition, the scarlet gleam of a ruby, and no small one either? Even in the murk of this misty metropolitan midnight the reader’s eye cannot have been so dull as to miss such a twinkling and palpable jewel.

Yes, rich he was, reader, beyond the fondest dreams of avarice; and noble as— But over the birth of our caped protagonist we must for the moment pass in silence. Let us say only, that he grew to manhood in Glamorganshire, in a stately manor-house, the abode of the Lord J—–; and that this nobleman was his father he had not had reason to doubt, until a certain day when he was fifteen years of age.

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Mr Frogworth gave a start. He blenched (had he known it) with the pallor of one whom an Apparition has visited, and left little doubt as to the ultimate malignity of its purposes. For he had seen — or could have sworn it, at any rate — what appeared to be a pair of inviting blue eyes, peering at him from beyond the wainscoting.

He shook himself — this was scarcely possible; he had left her boxed up at Throgmorton — and resolved to investigate calmly and methodically. Striding up to where the eyes had appeared he grasped two fistfuls of wainscoting and tore it to bits with a banshee shriek. But there was nothing behind it but a couple of brown spiders, which rolled away from the light like pinballs into their holes.

Very well, then, this left no doubt. It had been an illusion, a hallucination born of nerves. Mr Frogworth laughed at himself for his foolish susceptibility. Gloria here? Why, what an imbecilic notion! Had he not boxed her up thoroughly at Throgmorton, in a lead coffin twenty feet underground, wrists and ankles bound together with steel fetters and a black scarf of spider’s silk tied tightly over those inviting blue eyes?

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December 21, 2012 · 11:11 pm

Many a mile of tundra have I trod,
And eyed the bright and baleful aureola
Of frosty Northern lights, on frosty Northern nights,
Taking my rest on journeys circumpolar;
Many a league of salt and scorpions
My boots have swallowed with their leather tongues,
In wild and desolate lands, where wild and desolate bands
Of mad Mings roam among yet madder Hmongs.

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December 21, 2012 · 11:07 pm

And yet it was not without some fleeting sense of guilt that Friar Bosworth rode homeward that evening. Something in his conscience, some long-neglected imp of the heart had rebelled, and was crying out for justice. JUSTICE it cried! — a muffled imp at best, of course, but insistent nevertheless. And the Friar, as he walked on swinging his cane, could not rid himself of the feeling that perhaps, for all his scholastic skill, there was an argument here he could not counter.

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December 21, 2012 · 11:01 pm

Distance; fog and distance. Mile upon bleak mile of tundra separated him from his heart’s desire while she, innocent, went shopping in Willesden Green. –But what was this scrap of doggerel whirling in his head, an old snatch of a burlesque or a come-all-ye from Ballymacdrogheda… No, ’twas gone.

Frivol and froth, all of it. Fie!

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December 21, 2012 · 10:58 pm

– Parsimony, thrift, mercy, lewdness, and sport, said Justice Oddwallader. – These are the virtues, Sir, upon which the British Empire is built. These are the five pillars of our civilization; the five indispensable features of our nation’s existence – the staples, as it were, of our moral diet. And you, Sir, have violated every one.

– Damned ruffian, said a voice from the gallery. Damned concupiscent stinker.

– Silence! admonished the Justice. I won’t have any θορύβημα in this court, to coin a phrase. Now, Sir, you goddamned scoundrel –

– That’s telling him, judge, said another.

– Order! said the judge. Now then, you scummy incongruous ruffian, hear your sentence. I sentence you, Willard Mohammed McGillicuddy Smith, of 47, The Crescent, Scrottingham, to be taken from this court to the place of execution and buggered up the arse until you’ve learned your lesson.

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December 21, 2012 · 10:56 pm

He stood in front of the door for a few moments, wondering whether to knock or simply walk in; but while he was hesitating the handle turned. The door opened a crack and he saw a face: a hairy, longish face with very sharp eyes, scrutinizing him: then the door closed as suddenly as it had opened.

After this he was a little scared even to knock: he had some doubts about that face. But at last he gave three or four sharp raps on the door. It was some time before there came any response, and he was beginning to nerve himself for walking in uninvited after all, when there came a voice:

“Enter, Mr. Witherspoon!”

He turned the handle and went in. It was a smaller room than he had expected, with a desk in the middle of the room covered with books and papers, a small curtained window and what appeared to be the door of a closet. But the room was empty.

There was nowhere a person could hide, and no apparent outlet. Richard stood staring for a moment. This was too much; it was not a moment since a voice—whether a human voice, he could not say, but a voice—had summoned him in, and there was no one here. His fear deepened and, feeling he must take some action or succumb utterly, he strode to the door of the closet and threw it open. There were a few old coats on hangers and a pile of shoes and slippers.

“I am not in the closet, Mr. Witherspoon,” said the voice, behind him. “I am sitting at the desk. It is simply that I have my back to you, and I am invisible from the back.”

Richard turned around and shut the closet door. There was a chair behind the desk, and another in front of it, near where he had come in. He sat down in the latter. It was hard to know where to look: he did not want to sit staring at the seemingly empty chair before him, but it seemed equally uncivil to turn his gaze away from his interlocutor. He looked down at the scattered papers that covered the desk.

“Why have you come to see me, Mr. Witherspoon?” said the voice.

It spoke not in the tone of one requesting information, but more in the style of a catechist: as if this question had to be posed and answered so that their conversation could take its proper course, but the answer was equally well known to both the participants. Richard, accepting this, began to relate the story of that day’s adventures. He put in as much detail as he could, repeating conversations word for word when he could remember them and describing even the most trivial aspects of dress, gesture, weather, for he felt this was a welcome opportunity to rest from the incessant exertions that had occupied him all day and reflect for a while on what they had meant. He was not interrupted, and from the complete silence of the invisible thing across the table he was sure that his words were heard with interest: if not in the events described, then in the way he described them.

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December 21, 2012 · 10:54 pm

At the moment they were arguing about the Confluence of Radical Epistemologies in the Postcolonial Moment.

‘You’ve read your Hegel, Gloria,’ his father was saying. ‘The method is the consciousness of the form of the inner self-movement of the content of logic.’

‘That position,’ his mother replied, ‘has not been intellectually respectable since the devastating operations of the early Habermas (1966, 1973). Must I remind you, Theodore, that hierarchical power is implicitly co-construed through the interaction of pragmatic agents (Foucault 1981)?’

‘Tripe,’ said his father. ‘You fail to consider the culturally contingent web of negotiated meanings by which public artifacts are reified, deified, de-reified and re-deified. It is an agentive structure/process (Smegner et al. 1989) which, I suggest, is better understood as a social gesture (“art-if-act”).’

Robert knew how it would end. His father would accuse his mother of ignoring the seminal work of Babaghanoushi and Boulmichev; his mother, between clenched teeth, would retort that the dialectical process was inherently engendered; his father would bang on the table and shout ‘I problematize your assumptions!’; his mother, with a hoarse cry of ‘I subsume you!’, would storm out of the room in tears.

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December 21, 2012 · 10:54 pm

The whole story started with a visit from my aunt Dahlia, as these things so often do. Often and often have I found that many a time and oft is it that case that such malentendus (if that’s the word I’m after) – or is it contretemps? – that such imbroglios, if I may use the expression, often begin with a visit from the aunt. For she is a stormy petrel of sorts who brings the old storm clouds in her wake wherever she hies as if they were attached by a leash to her ankle. Which is substantial, by the way, having been lovingly beefed up for years by her incomparable French chef Anatole. But this is by the way.

So on the morning in question the old aunt had incorporated, if that’s the word, in my midst at about nine a.m. without so much as a word of warning. Faithful readers will not need to have it spelled out to them what a nuisance, indeed a what-d’ye-call-it such unanticipated visitations present to the Wooster constitution, which is frail and birdlike. To intrude into the presence before noon is to risk the wrath that my ancestors showed to such effect at Boulogne (I think it was). And so it proved on the occasion in question.

‘My dear old a.,’ I said, fixing her with a cold stare, ‘what is the meaning of this?’

But she was unflappable. Indeed I have often and often had occasion to remark that to flap old aunt Dahlia is a project beyond the capacities of most mortals. She has a sort of steely whatsit to her that is all but impossible to penetrate. Even the bravest men have been seen to quail before her when she stands athwart their doorway like a seventy-four that is miffed. But not for nothing am I a Wooster, and the Wooster blood does not curdle lightly.

I braved her steely gaze bravely and continued my harangue, for to be honest I was quite dashedly pipped. ‘I must observe, aunt of my loins,’ I continued icily, ‘that your unheralded appearance chez Bertie at this ungodly hour is not at all what I would call the thing. There is a fine line between paying a nephew a friendly visit and making a damned nuisance of yourself, and you seem to have mistaken that line for the starting pistol in the long jump.’ Thinking back I suppose I got my metaphors a bit mixed at this point, but the gist was clear enough. ‘What, I ask again, is the meaning of this barbaric intrusion? I haven’t had breakfast.’

‘Nor will you ever, you nitwit, if you go on in that vein,’ she said in what I thought was a somewhat menacing tone, ‘because I’ll kill you. Now listen to me. You’re to come down to Brinkley Court tout de suite. Take the first train down. No need to pack. Bring Jeeves.’

And with these ominous words she was gone, like a wraith that has, well, uttered ominous words and gone.

I was left rather nonplussed by this communication, to tell you the truth. It sounded as if she had said ‘You’re to come down to Brinkley Court tout de suite’ and ‘Take the first train down’, as well as ‘No need to pack’ and also ‘Bring Jeeves’. But this was scarcely possible.

Thus reflecting I sank back upon my pillow with a sigh and decided to put in another hour or four of Zs. Perhaps things would be clearer in the morning, or, seeing that it was morning, in the afternoon. ‘Jeeves,’ I murmured sleepily, forgetting that he was not by my side.

‘Sir?’ came his answering hail from the direction of the kitchen. The chap has a marvelous sense of pitch, I’ve always said. He can distinguish his own name from a parasang away.

‘Jeeves, I shall be wanting breakfast in about four hours.’

‘Very good, sir,’ says he. ‘But would you not prefer to breakfast at Brinkley Court?’

There was that name again. ‘Brinkley Court?’ I said. ‘Why on earth should I prefer to breakfast at Brinkley Court when I’m not at Brinkley Court? You’ve taken leave of your senses, Jeeves.’

‘I was under the impression, sir, that we were to embark for Brinkley Court in a matter of minutes.’

This took the biscuit.

‘Oh, you were, were you?’ I said. ‘Well, you can extricate yourself from under that impression, Jeeves, and spare yourself considerable discomfort, I would imagine. We are to do nothing of the sort.’

‘Very good, sir. But I suspect Mrs Travers will be rather put out if we fail to arrive forthwith.’

‘Mrs Travers’ put-outness or the contrary, Jeeves, is none of your concern,’ I said, imbuing my tone with a hint of that Wooster sharpness that has made braver men than he to quail and blubber. ‘Breakfast in four hours. Till then, toodle-pip.’

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December 21, 2012 · 10:52 pm