After the success of The Bowmen, and the ensuing controversy it stirred, the Evening News gladly published more short stories from the imagination and pen of its employee, Arthur Machen. However, none of the succeeding works were as earth-shaking as the original, and as a whole, the lot is a mixed bag of varying quality. Some stories, such as Karl Heinz’s Diary rank among the weakest material in the entire Machen canon, while others (see Out of the Earth) are miniature works of brilliance. Happily, I would suggest that the following tale, What the Prebendary Saw, falls into the second category.
Like Out of the Earth, Machen related this tale as a newspaperman, who in the the course of reporting a story, stumbles upon the marvelous. In both instances, Machen does not experience the strange event personally, by collects it second-hand as a reporter on his beat. This marriage of the factual and the fantastic is a device that Machen developed during his time as a journalist and would inspire the framing method of most of the writer’s subsequent fiction.
Despite his dislike for the profession and the unhappiness he experienced at the Evening News, his tenure at the paper allowed him not only a venue for new fiction – he had found precious little opportunity since Hill of Dreams (1907) – but the struggles of writing several columns a week created a lasting imprint on his narrative approach. If one compares his horror stories of the 1890s with the fantasies he crafted between 1914-1936, the major innovation in Machen’s form is the shift from third to first-person. In many of his later tales, there is a narrator and that “I” represents Machen himself. By doing so, Machen, a middle-aged author, revitalized his fiction and gave his later weird stories a frame of authenticity. They are inviting and intimate, and in the best of them, he does not spoil the illusion, but gives the reader an opportunity to contemplate the thin line between the ordinary and the wondrous. The Great Return and The Terror, both originally serialized at the Evening News, represent the zenith of this technique.
In the following example, Machen makes the story personal by the use of the Hereford Cathedral School of which he was a graduate. This school is also connected with the Anglican priest and mystic Thomas Traherne, who is mentioned in the story. Machen’s “friend,” the equally mystical Dr. Duthoit, is likely pure invention, a veiled representation of an actual person or perhaps a composite of personalities. In actuality, the headmaster at the time of Machen’s attendance was James Davies. Neither figure is mentioned by Machen in his memoirs.
In the story, Duthoit is named as the rector of St. Owen’s, a church which was destroyed centuries earlier during the English Civil War and never rebuilt. Interestingly, our hazy prebendary is one of the few characters to resurface in another Machen story. He appears by communication at the conclusion of the aforementioned Out of the Earth.
In order to make the tale universal and relevant to his audience, Machen used the recently disastrous Gallipoli Campaign as the backdrop for the story. Despite that, Machen still weaves a tale of otherworldly mystery which continues the theme found in all of his war stories: the First World War was a cosmic conflict which involved all of creation, not mortal armies only.
Appearing in the paper after the first edition of The Angel of Mons: The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War was published in August 1915, What the Prebendary Saw was eventually included in the second edition of the collection. However, it was edited down from 1400 to 1100 words and retitled The Little Nations. Below, the reader will find the original version of September 6, 1915. The first two paragraphs, identified in blue, were deleted from the later publication.
There is a certain type of English cleric who may be regarded as a translation—if one may use the term—of the now extinct and forgotten French abbé. The two types are, of course, very different, just as a French word is in reality utterly different in its connotations from the English word which the dictionary supplies as its exact equivalent. Still, in a certain loose but practical sense, the one word does translate the other, and so the English clergyman of whom I am thinking is a very rough translation of the French abbé of the old regime. The two varieties of the cleric have this one mark in common: that neither is at heart a cleric at all.
* * *
The French abbé approximated to the French layman of his time; he was a Parisian in canonicals. And so with us, we have or had many ecclesiastics whose chief interests are not ecclesiastical. There was Dr. King, for example, ordained on his Fellowship; he really lived for Roman antiquities and Gnostic gems. I had an uncle, vicar of Llantrisant, who was sedulous in parochial visits—in that part of his parish where there were two or three limestone quarries. To these, after somewhat perfunctory ghostly work, he would carry his leather wallet and his hammers, and be happy; for he was a geologist rather than a priest.
* * *
I knew a fine specimen of the English abbé when I was at school at Hereford. This was Dr. Duthoit, Prebendary of Consumpta per Sabulum in Hereford Cathedral, Rector of St. Owen’s, bookworm, and, chiefly, rose-grower. He was a middle-aged man when I was a little boy; but he suffered me to walk with him in his garden sloping down to the Wye, near the pleasaunce of the Vicars Choral, reciting sometimes the poems of Traherne, which he had in manuscript, sometimes alluding darkly to the secrets contained in Lumen de Lumine, but for the most part demonstrating his progress in the art of growing a coal-black rose. This was the true work of his life, and nearly forty years ago he could show blooms whose copper or crimson tints were very near to utter darkness. I believe that his ideal was never attained in absolute perfection; and perhaps the perfect end and attaining of desire do not bring happiness here below.
* * *
After 1880 Prebendary Duthoit and I rarely saw each other and rarely wrote. He was at rest among his roses by the quiet Wye and I was dashed to and fro in wilder waters. But each contrived at long intervals to let the other know that he was alive, and so I was not altogether surprised to see the Prebendary’a queer, niggly writing on an envelope a week or two ago. He said he had heard a good deal of talk about . . . . well, about a popular legend with which I am understood to be in some way concerned, and he thought that an odd experience of his might possibly interest me. I do not give the text of his letter, chiefly because it is full of Latin phrases which I might be called upon translate.
* * *
But the matter is as follows: On the 4th of August, the day of the service at St. Paul’s, Dr. Duthoit was walking up and down and about that pleasant garden on the elopes of the Wye. Just above the water his gardener had prepared, under direction and instruction, a plot of ground in a very special manner. I do not gather the precise purpose of the operation; but it seems that the soil had been made very fine and level ever a superficies of about ten yards. To this place the Prebendary walked slowly and reflectively, wishing to assure himself that his orders had been exactly carried out. The plot had been perfectly level the night before, but Dr. Duthoit wished to be more than sure about it. But to his extreme annoyance, when he turned by the fig-tree, he saw that the plot was very far from even. He is an old man, but his sight is good, and at a distance of several yards he could discern quite plainly that there had been mischief.
* * *
The chosen plot was in a disgraceful state. At first the Prebendary thought that the Custos’s sandy tom-cat had scaled the wire entanglement on top of the dividing wall; then he felt inclined to set the ruin down to Scamp, the Bishop’s wire-haired fox-terrier. And then coming close, he put on his spectacles; and wondered what had been at work.
For the level which had been so carefully established was all undone. At first the Doctor thought it was the mischief of some random, dancing beast, this confusion of hills and valleys which had taken the place of the billiard-table surface of the night before. And then it reminded him of certain raised maps which he had seen in Diocesan Training Schools. And then it reminded him, more distinctly, of a sort of picture map which had illustrated his morning paper a day or two before. And then he wondered violently, because he saw that somebody had with infinite pains made this garden plot of his into an exact model of the Gallipoli Peninsula.
* * *
It was all so ingenious and perfect that the old clergyman held his breath for a moment, and peered into this miniature intricacy of peaks and steeps and gullies and valleys. He had scarcely gathered himself together to wonder who had had the ingenious impudence for the mischief, when amazement once more seized him. For he saw now, stooping down, that this garden Gallipoli was swarming with life. There were hosts on it and about it; and then Dr. Duthoit forgot all about what we call the realities and facts of life, forgot that this sort of thing doesn’t happen, and gasped and watched what was happening.
* * *
He writes that, queerly enough, he lost his sense of size. He was not a Gulliver looking down on Lilliput; the mountains ten inches high became to him actual and lofty summits; the tiny precipices were tremendous. And the red ants swarmed to attack the black ants who held the heights with savage and desperate fury. He says that he panted with excitement as he watched the courage of the attack and defence, the savagery of the “hand-to-hand” fighting. Black and red fell by myriads; and the Doctor has persuaded himself that he observed amazing instances of individual heroism. One particular range seemed the especial aim of the red forces; and they swarmed up victorious and held it for awhile, and then retreated; the Doctor could not quite make out the reason of this.
* * *
He started violently when his man called to him. Roberts said he had called for five minutes without getting an answer, and that the Dean was in a hurry, with only five minutes to spare. So the Prebendary went into the house in a kind of dream, as the Scots put it, and had no notion of what the Dean bad to say. And when he got back to the garden he found his gardener smoothing the plot with a long rake, and raking in a lot of dead ants with the mould. The gardener said it was boys; but the Doctor talked in such a way to the Custos that night that the Custos, reading his paper a fortnight later, began to think that the old Prebendary was a prophet.
* * *
And the Prebendary? He ends his letter: “Quod superius est sicut quod inferius (that which is above is as that which is below) as the Smaragdine Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus testifies; and it is my belief that this is a word-battle in a sense which we do not appreciate. There have been some who have held that the earthly conflict is but a reflection of the war in heaven; what if it be reflected infinitely, if it penetrate to the uttermost depths of creation? And if a speck of dust be a cosmos—a universe—of revolving worlds? There may be battle between creatures that no microscope shall ever discover.”
3 thoughts on “What The Prebendary Saw”
This is very interesting – with both that sweep of scale (I wonder if Madeleine L’
Engle knew this story? – though the mitocondrion of The Wind in the Door (1973) might be bigger or smaller than a particular “speck of dust”!) and what seems the precise near-past detail: the Anniversary Service at St. Paul’s Cathedral (a year after the 4 August British ultimatum demanding the German withdrawal from Belgium, which they had invaded that morning, which, expiring at midnight brought Britain into the war), “a fortnight later” perhaps referring to the immediate effects of the French announcement on 16 August of an autumn offensive which the British decided to support “by a maximum effort” (in the Wikipedia “Gallipoli” article has this right). The apparent old-fashioned sounding place name, “Consumpta per Sabulum” is curious in the context, as (under correction!) it seems to mean ‘consumed [or destroyed] by means of sand’. (There are interesting Biblical military contexts for related forms, such as the exchange between Elisha and Jerboam in 2 Kings 13 [= 4 Kings in the Vulgate] – fighting the Syrians “donec consumas eam” (“till thou consume them”: verse 17) – but also the failure to strike the ground (“terram”) with arrows five or six or seven times after which “percussisses Syriam usque ad consumptionem” (“thou hadst smitten Syria even to utter destruction”: verses 18-19).)
There’s also some fine play in Duthoit having “the poems of Traherne, […] which in manuscript” as none were published until 1903. Dr. King of the second newspaper-only paragraph is Charles William King (1818-88), a son of Newport on the Usk in Monmouthshire, who became a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, “took holy orders, but never held any parish position”, “spent much time in Italy, where he laid the foundation of his collection of engraved gems and gemstones” (Wikipedia), and, among other things wrote The Gnostics and their Remains and translated “the theosophical works of the Emperor Julian (1888), for Bohn’s Classical Library”.
Thank you for pointing out the significance of the anniversary dates. Also the Biblical connections! I missed that.
Checking Eilert Ekwall’s Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names (ed. 3, 1947 – as scanned in the Internet Archive) I found nothing remotely like “Consumpta”, and only Sabden in Lancashire as anything like “Sabulum”, and no place-names when I searched for “per” – but got 49 results when I searched for “super”, the most interesting in the context of the story being “Clayton super Moras” recorded in 1284 for Clayton le Moors (also in Lancashire), though how likely Machen’s imagination might be to play with ‘clay’ and ‘sand’ and ‘Sabden’ and ‘Sabulum’ as well as ‘per’ and ‘super’, I don’t know.