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WHY JURGEN DID THE MANLY THING
JT is a tale which they narrate in Poictesme, saying: In the old days lived a pawnbroker named Jurgen; but what his wife called him was very often much worse than that. She was a high-spirited woman, with no especial gift for silence. Her name, they say, was Adelais, but people by ordinary called her Dame Lisa.
They tell, also, that in the old days, after putting up the shop-windows for the night, Jurgen was passing the Cistercian Abbey, on his way home: and one of the monks had tripped over a stone in the roadway. He was cursing the devil who had placed it there.
"Fie, brother!" says Jurgen, "and have not the devils enough to bear as it is?"
"I never held with Origen," replied the monk; "and besides, it hurt my great-toe confoundedly."
"None the less," observes Jurgen, "it does not behove God-fearing persons to speak with disrespect of the divinely appointed Prince of Darkness. To your further confusion, consider this monarch's industry! Day and night you may detect him toiling at the task Heaven set him. That is a thing can be said of few communicants and of no monks. Think, too, of his fine artistry, as evidenced in all the perilous and lovely snares of this world, which it is your business to combat, and mine to lend money upon. Why, but for him we would both be vocationless! Then, too, consider his philanthropy, and deliberate how insufferable would be our case if you and I, and all our fellow parishioners, were to-day hobnobbing with other beasts in the Garden which we pretend to desiderate on Sundays! To arise with swine and lie down with the hyena?—Oh, intolerable!"
Thus he ran on, devising reasons for not thinking too harshly of the Devil. Most of it was an abridgment of some verses Jurgen had composed, in the shop when business was slack.
"I consider that to be stuff and nonsense," was the monk's glose.
"No doubt your notion is sensible," observed the pawnbroker: "but mine is the prettier."
Then Jurgen passed the Cistercian Abbey, and was approaching Bellegarde, when he met a black gentleman, who saluted him and said:
"Thanks, Jurgen, for your good word."
"Who are you, and why do you thank me?" asks Jurgen.
"My name is no great matter. But you have a kind heart, Jurgen. May your life be free from care!"
"Save us from hurt and harm, friend, but I am already married."
"Eh, sirs, and a fine clever poet like you!"
"Yet it is a long while now since I was a practising poet."
"Why, to be sure! You have the artistic temperament, which is not exactly suited to the restrictions of domestic life. Then I suppose your wife has her own personal opinion about poetry, Jurgen."
"Indeed, sir, her opinion would not bear repetition, for I am sure you are unaccustomed to such language."
"This is very sad. I am afraid your wife does not quite understand you, Jurgen."
"Sir," says Jurgen, astounded, "do you read people's inmost thoughts?"
The black gentleman seemed much dejected. He pursed his lips, and fell to counting upon his fingers: as they moved his sharp nails glittered like flame-points.
"Now but this is a very deplorable thing," says the black gentleman, "to have befallen the first person I have found ready to speak a kind word for evil. And in all these centuries, too! Dear me, this is a most regrettable instance of mismanagement! No matter, Jurgen, the morning is brighter than the evening. How I will reward you, to be sure! "
So Jurgen thanked the simple old creature politely. And when Jurgen reached home his wife was nowhere to be seen. He looked on all sides and questioned everyone, but to no avail. Dame Lisa had vanished in the midst of getting supper ready—suddenly, completely and inexplicably, just as (in Jurgen's figure) a windstorm passes and leaves behind it a tranquillity which seems, by contrast, uncanny. Nothing could explain the mystery, short of magic: and Jurgen on a sudden recollected the black gentleman's queer promise. Jurgen crossed himself.
"How unjustly now," says Jurgen, "do some people get an ill name for gratitude! And now do I perceive how wise I am, always to speak pleasantly of everybody, in this world of tale-bearers."
Then Jurgen prepared his own supper, went to bed, and slept soundly.
"I have implicit confidence," says he, " in Lisa. I have particular confidence in her ability to take care of herself in any surroundings."
That was all very well: but time passed, and presently it began to be rumoured that Dame Lisa walked on Morven. Her brother, who was a grocer and a member of the town-council, went thither to see about this report. And sure enough, there was Jurgen's wife walking in the twilight and muttering incessantly.
"Fie, sister!" says the town-councillor, "this is very unseemly conduct for a married woman, and a thing likely to be talked about."
"Follow me!" replied Dame Lisa. And the town-councillor followed her a little way in the dusk, but when she came to Amneran Heath and still went onward, he knew better than to follow.
Next evening the elder sister of Dame Lisa went to Morven. This sister had married a notary, and was a shrewd woman. In consequence, she took with her this evening a long wand of peeled willow-wood. And there was Jurgen's wife walking in the twilight and muttering incessantly.
"Fie, sister!" says the notary's wife, who was a shrewd woman, "and do you not know that all this while Jurgen does his own sewing, and is once more making eyes at Countess Dorothy?"
Dame Lisa shuddered; but she only said, "Follow me!"
And the notary's wife followed her to Amneran Heath, and across the heath, to where a cave was. This was a place of abominable repute. A lean hound came to meet them there in the twilight, lolling his tongue: but the notary's wife struck thrice with her wand, and the silent beast left them. And Dame Lisa passed silently into the cave, and her sister turned and went home to her children, weeping.
So the next evening Jurgen himself came to Morven, because all his wife's family assured him this was the manly thing to do. Jurgen left the shop in charge of Urien Villemarche, who was a highly efficient clerk. Jurgen followed his wife across Amneran Heath until they reached the cave. Jurgen would willingly have been elsewhere.
For the hound squatted upon his haunches, and seemed to grin at Jurgen; and there were other creatures abroad, that flew low in the twilight, keeping close to the ground like owls; but they were larger than owls and were more discomforting. And, moreover, all this was just after sunset upon Walburga's Eve, when almost anything is rather more than likely to happen.
So Jurgen said, a little peevishly: "Lisa, my dear, if you go into the cave I will have to follow you, because it is the manly thing to do. And you know how easily I take cold."
The voice of Dame Lisa, now, was thin and wailing, a curiously changed voice. "There is a cross about your neck. You must throw that away."
Jurgen was wearing such a cross, through motives of sentiment, because it had once belonged to his dead mother. But now, to pleasure his wife, he removed the trinket, and hung it on a barberry bush; and with the reflection that this was likely to prove a deplorable business, he followed Dame Lisa into the cave.CHAPTER 2
ASSUMPTION OF A NOTED GARMENT
THE tale tells that all was dark there, and Jurgen could see no one. But the cave stretched straight forward and downward, and at the far end was a glow of light. Jurgen went on and on, and so came presently to a centaur: and this surprised him not a little, because Jurgen knew that centaurs were imaginary creatures.
Certainly they were curious to look at, for here was the body of a fine bay horse, and rising from its shoulders, the sun-burnt body of a young fellow who regarded Jurgen with grave and not unfriendly eyes. The Centaur was lying beside a fire of cedar and juniper wood: near him was a platter containing a liquid with which he was anointing his hoofs. This stuff, as the Centaur rubbed it in with his fingers, turned the appearance of his hoofs to gold.
"Hail, friend," says Jurgen, "if you be the work of God."
"Your protasis is not good Greek," observed the Centaur, "because in Hellas we did not make such reservations. Besides, it is not so much my origin as my destination which concerns you."
"Well, friend, and whither are you going?"
"To the garden between dawn and sunrise, Jurgen."
"Surely, now, but that is a fine name for a garden! and it is a place I would take joy to be seeing."
"Up upon my back, Jurgen, and I will take you thither," says the Centaur, and heaved to his feet. Then said the Centaur, when the pawnbroker hesitated: "Because, as you must understand, there is no other way. For this garden does not exist, and never did exist, in what men humorously called real life; so that of course only imaginary creatures such as I can enter it."
"That sounds very reasonable," Jurgen estimated: "but as it happens, I am looking for my wife, whom I suspect to have been carried off by a devil, poor fellow!"
And Jurgen began to explain to the Centaur what had befallen.
The Centaur laughed. "It may be for that reason I am here. There is, in any event, only one remedy in this matter. Above all devils and above all gods—they tell me, but certainly above all centaurs—is the power of Koshchei the Deathless, who made things as they are."
"It is not always wholesome," Jurgen submitted, "to speak of Koshchei. It seems especially undesirable in a dark place like this."
"None the less, I suspect it is to him you must go for justice."
"I would prefer not doing that," said Jurgen, with unaffected candour.
"You have my sympathy: but there is no question of preference where Koshchei is concerned. Do you think, for example, that I am frowzing in this underground place by my own choice? and knew your name by accident?"
Jurgen was frightened, a little. "Well, well! but it is usually the deuce and all, this doing of the manly thing. How, then, can I come to Koshchei?"
"Roundabout," says the Centaur. "There is never any other way."
"And is the road to this garden roundabout?"
"Oh, very much so, inasmuch as it circumvents both destiny and common sense."
"Needs must, then," says Jurgen: "at all events, I am willing to taste any drink once."
"You will be chilled, though, travelling as you are. For you and I are going a queer way, in search of justice, over the grave of a dream and through the malice of time. So you had best put on this shirt above your other clothing."
"Indeed it is a fine snug shining garment, with curious figures on it. I accept such raiment gladly. And whom shall I be thanking for his kindness, now?"
"My name," said the Centaur, "is Nessus."
"Well, then, friend Nessus, I am at your service."
And in a trice Jurgen was on the Centaur's back, and the two of them had somehow come out of the cave, and were crossing Amneran Heath. So they passed into a wooded place, where the light of sunset yet lingered, rather unaccountably. Now the Centaur went westward. And now about the pawnbroker's shoulders and upon his breast and over his lean arms glittered like a rainbow the many-coloured shirt of Nessus.
For a while they went through the woods, which were composed of big trees standing a goodish distance from one another, with the Centaur's gilded hoofs rustling and sinking in a thick carpet of dead leaves, all grey and brown, in level stretches that were unbroken by any undergrowth. And then they came to a white roadway that extended due west, and so were done with the woods. Now happened an incredible thing in which Jurgen would never have believed had he not seen it with his own eyes: for now the Centaur went so fast that he gained a little by a little upon the sun, thus causing it to rise in the west a little by a little; and these two sped westward in the glory of a departed sunset. The sun fell full in Jurgen's face as he rode straight toward the west, so that he blinked and closed his eyes, and looked first toward this side, then the other. Thus it was that the country about him, and the persons they were passing, were seen by him in quick bright flashes, like pictures suddenly transmuted into other pictures; and all his memories of this shining highway were, in consequence, always confused and incoherent.
He wondered that there seemed to be so many young women along the road to the garden. Here was a slim girl in white, teasing a great brown and yellow dog that leaped about her clumsily; here a girl sat in the branches of a twisted and gnarled tree, and back of her was a broad muddied river, copper-coloured in the sun; and here shone the fair head of a tall girl on horseback, who seemed to wait for someone: in fine, the girls along the way were numberless, and Jurgen thought he recollected one or two of them.
But the Centaur went so swiftly that Jurgen could not be sure.CHAPTER 3
THE GARDEN BETWEEN DAWN AND SUNRISE
THUS it was that Jurgen and the Centaur came to the garden between dawn and sunrise, entering this place in a fashion which it is not convenient to record. But as they passed over the bridge three fled before them, screaming. And when the life had been trampled out of the small furry bodies which these three had misused, there was none to oppose the Centaur's entry into the garden between dawn and sunrise.
This was a wonderful garden: yet nothing therein was strange. Instead, it seemed that everything hereabouts was heart-breakingly familiar and very dear to Jurgen. For he had come to a broad lawn which slanted northward to a well-remembered brook: and multitudinous maples and locust-trees stood here and there, irregularly, and were being played with very lazily by an irresolute west wind, so that foliage seemed to toss and ripple everywhere like green spray: but autumn was at hand, for the locust-trees were dropping a Danaë's shower of small round yellow leaves. Around the garden was an unforgotten circle of blue hills. And this was a place of lucent twilight, unlit by either sun or stars, and with no shadows anywhere in the diffused faint radiancy that revealed this garden, which is not visible to any man except in the brief interval between dawn and sunrise.
"Why, but it is Count Emmerick's garden at Storisende," says Jurgen, "where I used to be having such fine times when I was a lad."
"I will wager," said Nessus, "that you did not use to walk alone in this garden."
"Well, no; there was a girl."
"Just so," assented Nessus. "It is a local by-law: and here are those who comply with it."
For now had come toward them, walking together in the dawn, a handsome boy and girl. And the girl was incredibly beautiful, because everybody in the garden saw her with the vision of the boy who was with her.
Excerpted from Jurgen by James Branch Cabell. Copyright © 2011 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Posted April 11, 2010
James Branch Cabell's _Jurgen_ is frequently hailed as a early work of fantasy fiction. It's definitely picaresque, a little sinister, and sometimes obscene. It seems to me that most modern fantasy, by contrast, has been ruined by Tolkien's ponderous and humorless epic. These days fantasy seems to rely on huge elaborate depictions of alternate (but always medieval) worlds, and the bizarreness of folk-narrative and "fairy tale" has faded from view. Here's a fragment. A ghost king is referring to the ghost of his ninth wife, Sylvia:
"And I regret, I bitterly regret, to confess that, in a moment of extreme yet not quite unprovoked excitement, I assassinated the lady whom you now behold."
"And I am sure, through no fault of mine," says Sylvia Tereu.
"Certainly, my dear, you resisted with all your might. I only wish that you had been a larger and brawnier woman."