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William, the Seventh Earl of Upton, is dying. His grandson, Seabold, has given him a journal in which the old man-unwillingly at first, but soon with a strange compulsion-begins to record the last months of his time on earth. But a daily account of life at Upton Hall, the decaying estate in which this late-Victorian lord has spent his entire life, is quickly overtaken by violent recollections of William's childhood, a past he has heretofore managed to repress, as well as even stranger intimations of the future, ...
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William, the Seventh Earl of Upton, is dying. His grandson, Seabold, has given him a journal in which the old man-unwillingly at first, but soon with a strange compulsion-begins to record the last months of his time on earth. But a daily account of life at Upton Hall, the decaying estate in which this late-Victorian lord has spent his entire life, is quickly overtaken by violent recollections of William's childhood, a past he has heretofore managed to repress, as well as even stranger intimations of the future, of ourselves, the readers, chancing upon this document some hundred years later, and of the predicaments we find ourselves in today. These three strands, past, present, and future, are braided together as our unlikely hero speaks to both himself and to the not-yet-living, finally seeing his life whole and extracting from it the lessons he has learned, lessons learned for our benefit as well as his own. Time Among the Dead conjures up the lost world of the English countryside, with its eccentric aristocracy, stolid tenant farmers, and striving middle class. Romantic love and a mystical appreciation of nature vie with the gloom of family secrets and the growing apprehension that a time, a way of life, is passing irrevocably away. A figure by turns tragic and screamingly funny, William proves to be a sage guide, reminding us that the human condition changes little over the years. By the end, it is unclear who has visited whom, only that we have made-and lost-a friend.
Morocco-bound, gilt-edged, with a ribbon to mark one's place, a journal reeks of obligation, which is, I am sure, precisely what Seabold intended, that I should wile away the precious time left me distilling whatever "wisdom" six-and-eighty summers have supposedly deposited in my brain. Faugh! I say to that. I would rather muck out the servants' privy than try extracting from the private nature of my life any such lessons as could be useful to posterity.
Nevertheless, I must pretend to write something, as he is here in the room, overseeing the production of my Maiden Entry. I just looked up and caught him smiling, so glad is he to have finally got the old duffer engaged upon some meaningful pursuit. Would that I had the skill of a Gilray or Hogarth to portray him in the margins of this work, a vain youth, stopping to admire himself before any passing reflection, standing sideways to better trace the cut of his trousers. I have even seen him, unaware of my presence, blow himself a kiss in the glass.
He nods that I should return to the business at hand, patronizing pup. I try scowling back but fear all the venom I pour into the look only raises it to the level of an old man's bluster. Such are the indignities of age.
How much more do I have to scribble here before I can decently close this volume, tuck it under my arm, and accidentally drop it in the Reflecting Pool?
He wants memories. I refuse to look back. The moment one looks back, one falls flat on one's face. To you, I may appear at the end of my journey, but for me the journey begins afresh with each step. The short climb from armchair to bed, for example, is an adventure fraught with risk, a perilous expedition that sets my heart pounding, screws my courage to its highest pitch, one that I intend to embark upon ... now.
It appears to be morning. I say appears because, for all the rain beating on the windowpanes, I can make out only a grudging luminescence. I hate being trapped indoors. The worst of it is that, even should the sky clear later, the grounds will resemble a swamp, and with my leg continuing to worsen there is no way I will be able to take my customary ramble. So I sit, while Seabold amuses himself with a deck of cards. I had thought he was playing solitaire but just now he offered to tell my fortune, so I suppose he is dabbling in the juvenile mysteries of the Tarot. I could tell him a thing or two about the Hanged Man and the Queen of Cups, but with his hairs so carefully curled I doubt he would like to see them stood on end.
"Fortune, at my age?" I snorted. "I don't need a gypsy's mumbo-jumbo to tell me what lies in wait."
"Perhaps I will cast mine, then, although it is said the cards do not speak directly to the one whose fate they foretell. There is need of an intermediary."
"You shall leave when the roads clear and go to London. There!"
"By whose munificence?"
"Your sainted mother's," I answered evenly.
"Saints are not often in the habit of bearing children, are they? Although one could argue giving birth is the result of that ultimate martyrdom, for a woman."
I did not have my stick, but my fingers gripped the sides of the chair just the same, as if to thrash him.
"The funds you refer to," he went on, "have, alas, vanished along with the bubble in which they were invested."
"That was rash."
He had, the whole time, been laying cards out. Now he turned one over.
"I wondered what explained your sudden appearance. Filial piety seemed, from the start, a rather tattered veil to mask your true intentions."
"Not at all. You needed caring for. You still do."
"I need peace."
"Well," he gave an exaggerated look round at the portrait-choked walls and timbered ceiling, "if you cannot find peace here, Grandfather, I sincerely doubt you will find it anywhere this side of the grave."
He has gone riding. With barely concealed envy I watched him pull on his boots.
"Is it all right if I take Episkidon?"
"By all means. He needs the work."
The storm has reduced itself to a drizzle, but the vista from the terrace, where I have had a chair set out, is still that of an interregnum season, what is left when winter departs and spring has yet to arrive. The lawn seems a bare canvas. I imagine down by the Tym it is different. Swollen from rains, the river becomes swift and chocolatey. As a lad, despite warnings to keep away, I would roll up my pant legs or dispense with such encumbrances entirely and test myself against its current, stand first ankle, then knee, finally waist deep, bracing myself against that enormous brown muscle. It is amazing I was not swept away.
Is he simply waiting for me to die? I go over the facts and find that the most likely conclusion. The alternative theory, that he remains out of dutiful affection, is betrayed by his restlessness and mockery. Yet there are moments when I see in him ... call it a spark of his mother, vying with darker elements for possession of his soul. I try to remember myself at twenty-one. Was I just as noxious a cad? I fear so. The question is: have I, in the intervening years, become a creature so much better?
These morbid reflections are the result of being served potted eel for lunch. I must tell Cook to scour the larder for items less unsettling.
Seabold did not return last night. I waited, first delaying dinner, then, afterwards, smoking a cigar in the library. When I finally heard the sound of a rider it was a boy from Greenwillows announcing that the Young Master, as the tenantry persists in calling him, met up with the Thomases in late afternoon, had been pleased to sup with them, and was now to be their guest.
Greenwillows! Well, if he is in search of diversion he can do no better than a visit with Squire Thomas, whose rustic brood no doubt kept him entertained till cockcrow. He is not back yet, at eleven o'clock the following morning, and so I find myself rejoicing in regained solitude.
My mother once said, "Billy, you are a queer lad, always shutting yourself up, engrossed in imaginary pursuits. Nurse worried about you, but I never did. It was Angela who was the object of our concerns, your father's and mine. You we regarded as a changeling, a visitor from some frosty clime, rather than a child it was our duty to raise."
I know not my reaction, if any, to these words when I first heard them. I do ponder their significance now. Strange confidence to make a child. And Angela, what on earth could they be concerned about with her? She was the cynosure of beauty for miles around. I still recall a dress she asked me to help her with—when I was young enough to be entrusted with such innocent tasks—that necessitated being sewn shut in back. God knows where her maid was. Helping with preparations, no doubt. It must have been our turn to host the Hunt Ball. I had never touched needle or thread before, and hear, even today, her laughing and crying out at my clumsy attempts to bind together the edges of taffeta.
"You are poking me," she protested. "You have drawn blood!"
... all while a marvelous scent rose. Which I wonder at, for Father did not allow perfume of any sort. Yet the fragrance, haunting and particular, has just traversed some eighty-odd years in an instant. If I followed my nose down that garden path, where would it lead?
A day has passed with no word of the boy's return. I will not lower myself to inquire as to his plans. I did take the opportunity, stumping through the moldering halls (it is raining again), to examine the contents of his room. Not, I suppose, a strictly honorable undertaking, and indeed, had I reflected before setting out, weighed the matter in my mind, I would no doubt have decided against it. The truth, however, was that I found myself in his chamber without a clear memory of having got there, gazing at the disheveled bedding (he has forbidden Mary, the girl, entrance) and a cacophony of strange tonics and elixirs arrayed round the washbasin. Several books, by authors with whom I have not the pleasure of acquaintance, were piled against a window where they had become wet. The atmosphere was one of dissolution. Proceeding further, I used my stick to poke at what appeared to be a lump under the blanket and discovered, to my horror, a silver salver reported missing several weeks past. At the time, a vagrant who had sought charity at the back gate was suspected. This led me to a more thorough examination of the premises which, while turning up no more missing valuables, did reveal a cache of letters from a woman calling herself Arabella. Here my sense of propriety returned, or perhaps it was distaste at the prospect of soiling my weary eyes further with proofs of the present generation's tawdry mores. For whatever reason, I quit that entire wing of the Hall and found myself, once again with no exact recollection of how I had arrived, at the stables, mourning the absence of Episkidon, the last, I fear, in what for so long seemed an unending procession of trusty mounts.
"Where do we go when we die?"
"We go nowhere. We open our souls to the Good Lord and He floods us with Heaven. It is our surroundings that become Divine. Our vision is cleansed by His Son's blood and we see, for the first time, eternal life in a blade of grass. Heaven is not some airy castle but a revelation that Time is the Devil's trick. One steps sideways, as it were, out of one's self, and sees all the old certainties collapse like a suit of shed skin."
My tutor held beliefs which, had Father known of them, would have led to his immediate dismissal. He used them as a kind of spur to encourage me in my studies. Latin, for example, which I detested, he pointed out contained clues to the Divine Presence in our everyday lives. Everything, indeed, obeyed a Law, hinted at a Pattern, was part of some Greater Scheme that ruled our stay here on this earth and so merited understanding.
"Not strictly orthodox," he agreed, when I pointed out how some of his positions seemed to challenge those held by the Vicar. We were walking through a meadow, slashing at the grass with sticks. "But you will find that questioning, rather than blindly obeying, leads to a deeper understanding of God than that obtained by those mumbling sheep grazing at their psalms."
"Then death is merely—"
"Quite," he cut me off. "Death is merely."
A daisy was separated from its stem and sent spinning to the ground. How young we were, the both of us, though at the time he seemed immeasurably older. I wonder how well that philosophy served him when, several years later, he was taken by fever.
Another day alone.
It is dark now. This journal proves a dangerous pastime. I liken it to a patch of quicksand, the blank page.
Turning, with an effort, my attention to the present, I must come to some decision regarding Seabold. He has lost his inheritance and shows no ambition, no resolve, to get his life going. This I must balance against the fact that he is my sole heir, young, and the product of a not untroubled youth, much of the blame for which lies with myself. To pack him off to London with vague notions of obtaining a Commission or being called to the Bar would be perfectly acceptable in the eyes of many and yet might very well be tantamount to sending the boy over a cliff. On the other hand, to keep him here and suffer his beady-eyed deathwatch in the hope his nature will gradually change over time into that of a responsible landowner is not doing the boy any greater favor. One can run through a legacy (if that is what one calls the paltry sum I will be able to pass down) just as quickly on a country estate as in Kensington or Regent's Park.
Shocking to realize that the boy's mother, at his age, had already left this world, and that her mother, my dear Wife—
Death is "merely"? Our own, perhaps. But the death of others only looms larger as time proceeds. Contrary to popular sentiment, one does not recover from such losses. The shadows of the departed lengthen as our life moves on. Years pass. These areas of darkness combine and thicken, until one has the impression of traveling perpetually through a graveyard, at dusk.
He is back. And has been pleased to bring with him a woman. Or women, rather. It is totally unacceptable. When I referred to Squire Thomas and his "brood," I still pictured them in their larval state, a jumble of writhing infants with no more marks of individuality about them than a colony of wood lice. Now they seem to have, in the blink of an eye, matured, the eldest alarmingly so. They arrived in the morning, when for the first time in weeks I had set out, carefully picking my way through the puddles, determined to get as far as the wood or, who knows, perhaps even assault the gentle ridge that borders the northern edge of the estate. An unmistakable neigh made me turn and there was Episkidon, unmindful of his rightful master, snorting and prancing with pride as Seabold led in a dogcart two females, one of them a lass of perhaps sixteen, the other a juvenile sister.
"Grandpater," he called, immediately setting my teeth on edge. "I see you are better."
"Better than what?" I growled. "I was in no-wise ill."
"Really?" he inquired, staying his horse and, with a gesture, halting the progress of the cart as well. "I sensed my presence was beginning to wear on you. That is why I hied myself away. And see with what treasure I have returned."
"Your Lordship," the girls giggled, both attempting some semblance of a curtsey, not used to greeting me from a greater elevation.
"Kate here was so kind as to see me safely home. I feel it only right to offer her refreshment."
"By all means," I muttered, turning to the comparative serenity of the forest.
In my day, which this is apparently NOT, urchins of small farmers would be permitted a wide-eyed intrusion of Upton at least once, to instill in them the proper sense of awe as befits a subject towards his master, after which they would only be allowed to appear outside the kitchen and beg for such scraps and sweets as Cook was kind enough to dispense. The notion of them, once they reached the age of common sense, penetrating the Hall by its front door, of their being offered lemon squash in the drawing room, was and still is, for me, unthinkable. I glanced back, when a safe enough distance away not to be observed, and saw Seabold helping the elder Thomas girl out of her conveyance. She displayed, not by accident you may be sure, a finely turned ankle. Her sister, still a brat, jumped over the rail on the other side, letting her skirts flap about.
Nature is a balm not appreciated by the young. Even the raw branches with their hard little buds, the dead leaves still miraculously clinging, having survived the winter (Survived? In what sense? Are they any less dead than their brethren trod underfoot?) gladdened my heart as I pushed through this spot of wild I have insisted on maintaining as a bulwark against over-cultivation. Marrow and cabbage, sheep and cow, may provide my grosser needs, but it is here I come for spiritual nourishment. I place my open palm against a tree trunk and feel just under its rough skin the same life force that pulses beneath my own, a sense of kinship I have rarely shared with my fellow man.
"Come!" I recall Angela shouting.
To make sure I would follow, she grabbed my cap, disappearing into this selfsame wood, these selfsame trees. I tore after her. Home from school for the first time, I noticed her in a different way, the result, I suppose, of spending so much time in exclusively male company; how she ran, her feet springing off the ground at each step, gaining a magical buoyancy from the soil, whereas we boys comprised a thundering herd attempting to pound the playing field into submission.
"I shall exact tribute!" I promised, using the slang of the common room.
Deep in what seemed a taller wood, I listened intently for the sound of her progress, fancying I was a colonial hunter in just-discovered America keeping an eye out for grizzly bears and the mysterious Red Indian. I crept forward and was surprised as she fell on me from behind, whooping with delight, pulling the cap down tight over my ears.
"Pax! Pax!" I pleaded, but fought back just the same, grabbing her wrists, surprised to find I could force them to the ground.
"William the Conqueror," she mocked, kicking me.
Excerpted from TIME AMONG THE DEAD by Thomas Rayfiel Copyright © 2010 by Thomas Rayfiel . Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted May 27, 2010
Time among the Dead is an intriguing 158-page novel published by the Permanent Press. It's among several books that I've received from the publisher to review, all of which I've enjoyed.
The cover makes me think of old books on my parents' bookshelves, gold leaf stamped on aging brown leather and those fine old English letters that I learned to draw in art class. All of which is precise and appropriate, given that the book purports to be a sort of memoir written by the Seventh Earl of Upton in the late Victorian age.
The earl's grandson, Seabold, has come to stay with him, and gives him a book in which to write, presumably to encourage his failing faculties. But perhaps old Earl William's faculties aren't quite as decayed as they seem. He writes the first pages reluctantly, pushing the pen just far enough to persuade the grandson to leave. But soon the diary becomes his closest confidante, a place where he can question Seabold's interest in the local squire's daughter, where he can confess his own sins, searching through other people's rooms, and where, in time, he can allow the reader to search through his Victorian memories.
The earl begins to speculate on who his readers might be-creatures of a later age with fanciful machines and delusions of grandeur almost as futile as his own. He reveals the tawdry secrets of his past, finds them paralleled and reshuffled in the present, and expects them to lurk in the future, hidden in corners, unspoken, unresolved. The links of late-Victorian society to our own become as fascinating as the slow revelations of William's family history. And as the earl's dark future looms, with failing health and growing sympathy, the reader is drawn to eagerly await the next page, hoping for healing from the earl's latest fall, and seek meaning in it all just as the earl must surely do.
The ending satisfies and pulls the threads together with gentle aplomb. The man whose words have filled the pages truly lives on in those words. Except, of course, he's a figment of the author's imagination, but he does seem very real.
Time among the Dead is a book to savor, reading slowly to allow the old earl's thoughts the space they need to percolate across time. As the title suggests, the earl is indeed numbered among the dead, but so shall we all be. Meanwhile he calls us to live in our present, not waiting to write our memories in ancient books as he has done, but striving instead to live them and move forward in life.