Count ROBERT OF PARIS

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)

Constantinople in the early 12th century:  Alexius Comnenus is on the throne, along with his wife Irene and daughter, Anna.  They are protected in part by the Varangian guard, a collection of refugees from Saxon England and various countries in Scandinavia.  The bulk of the first Crusade to rescue Jerusalem from the pagans is about to arrive and consequently the intricate politics of court life are becoming increasingly complex.  Count Robert and his warrior wife, Countess Brenhilda are a major part of the noble contingent, along with Bohemund and Godfrey de Bouillion.  Alexius wants to utilize the crusader army as a defensive ploy against the Seljuk Turks, who are aggressive and ambitious, but he’s afraid of being besieged by the relatively undisciplined force as well.  In addition, he’s become aware that a plot to dethrone him is in existence, but he’s not sure who is involved.

Hereward the Saxon is a Varagian guard renowned for his skill, strength and loyalty.  He suspects the leader of the Varangians, Achilles Tatius, of being overly ambitious and snaky in his friendships, one of the latter being Anna’s husband, Nicephorus Briennius, who has

THE COMING RACE

Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873)

The American narrator (unnamed), after an extensive education in England, embarks on a world tour during which he’s invited by a mining engineer to inspect a given works.  The two descend to the lowest gallery and see a faint light in the distance.  Investigating, they discover a vast chasm lying beneath a vertical drop-off that apparently is artificial:  they see roads and part of a construction of some sort.  Returning the next day with ropes and lanterns, they begin descending into the light but the engineer falls and dies.  The narrator arrives at the bottom just in time to see a giant crocodile devour his friend.  Dithering a bit, he walks down into a vast valley lit up by an endless series of lamps that illuminate the cavern as far as the eye can see.  There’s lots of vegetation and fungi, colored red, and elk-like animals grazing on the foliage.  In the distance a tall man with wings approaches and, touching him gently, relieves his nervousness by stroking him with a sort of wand like apparatus.  They journey to a city in the distance that consists of immense buildings, rather like the Egyptian monuments at Aswan, and decorated with fountains and red trees.  Entering one of the buildings and climbing to the top story, the narrator is introduced to the tall man’s twelve-year old son, who puts him to sleep by breathing on him.

Waking after an indeterminate amount of time, he awakes and sees that the walls of the room are covered with jewels and crystals, and notices a balcony from which the enormous city can be seen stretching into the distance.  His hosts guide him down into a fire-lit triangular plaza and into another building, to a room with with a giant crystal machine and in which a number of children are lying, asleep.  He notices, for the first time, a few women evidently caring for the somnolent ones (who are being indoctrinated), and sees that, physically, they are a lot bigger than the men.  Entering another room, he sees books with crystal covers, duo decimo size, and then watches a sort of aerial ballet taking place outside, beyond another balcony.  His guide enlightens him as to the method of flying:  each adult has mechanical wings that fold up when not in use, and that extend via the action of the operator’s arms that slide into recesses in the wings themselves.  At this point, he’s overwhelmed by the bizarreness of everything around him and attacks one of the men.  They put him to sleep and he doesn’t waken for several days, during which they teach him their language and acculturate him to a limited extent.

Upon waking, the narrator knows a lot more about where he is, due to the advanced mental manipulations possessed by his custodians.  After some days of additional education, he comes to learn that his hosts, the Vril-Ya, descended thousands of years ago from the surface, seeking protection from hostile forces engaged in constant warfare.  At one time there were nations that warred with one another to the point that mutual destruction seemed inevitable, in spite of their common ancestry.  The different factions were all descended from swamp creatures that resembled, in fact, were, frogs.  When the decision was made to move underground, the survivors accidentally discovered Vril, a sort of quantum-based force that enabled them to build their cities and to control matter in any way whatsoever.  With a touch of their wands they could annihilate any enemy, regardless of its size, and they could create any building or structure necessary for their welfare.

The head of the government was called the “Tur”, and he had total power to manipulate the society as he wished, but only with the consent of the rest of society, mainly because any one person could, using Vril, eradicate whatever he found offensive.  Women, being the largest members of the species, ran the social side of the culture, including marriages, divorces, and the production of offspring.  Most of the real work, farming, bridge-building, civilian defense, was done by children under the age of twelve, because they were the only ones that had any unbridled fighting instincts left.  The city was surrounded by numerous lower-class countries that were savage and resentful of the Vril-Ya, principally because they themselves had no access to Vril.  Also numerous swamps and networks of caverns held prehistoric monsters that had to be eliminated on a regular basis merely to maintain the security of the city.

After a period of time, Zee, the daughter of Aph-Lin, the narrator’s host, fell in love with him and was on the point of proposing.  Marriage, in the Vril-Ya society, was considered to be “the untrammeled interchange of gentle affections”, and to the authorities that couldn’t be accomplished by allowing the narrator, whom they regarded as little more than a painted barbarian, to wed a native Vril-Ya.  And even if Zee verbally stated that she wanted him for a husband, that would be reason enough to murder him.  After a certain amount of waffling back and forth, Zee offers to escort him back to the surface, but the narrator is afraid that that would eventually subject the surface dwelling peoples to the awesome power of the Vril, resulting in the destruction of human beings en masse.  The Vril-Ya had demonstrated that they have no compunction about slaughtering whole villages with a wave of their wands, so the possibility of them being them loose and unencumbered on the exterior of the planet was frightening.  Zee’s younger brother, Taee, has received an order to erase the narrator, so Zee wakes him one night and they travel to the access point, where she flies him up to the lower gallery and then seals up the hole after him.  The narrator walks out of the mine, returns home and writes this book to warn humanity of the terror lurking below their feet.

This is one of Bulwer-Lytton’s shorter works and his only science-fiction novel.  It was published in 1871, and presumably influenced a number of other imaginative authors, Verne, Burroughs, and many others.  It’s quite well realized, with long descriptions of Vril culture and civilization, and speculative material about governments, societies, genetic propagation, and other subjects.  Bulwer-Lytton is not well received by modern critics and readers, but, imo, he has a lot to offer the curious who might have the time and inclination to read him.  His style is sort of like Charles Reade’s;  less egomaniacal than B. Disraeli and not nearly as difficult to follow as, say, Henry James.  But he does tend to get carried away with his own thoughts, commonly being distracted into lengthy rambles that don’t contribute much to the action or plot.  Some readers like this kind of thing, tho…  maybe you’re one?

ROSY IS MY RELATIVE

Gerald Durrell (1925-1995)

Adrian Rookwhistle made a living as a clerk for Bindweed, Cornelius, Chunter and Company.  He was raised in the rural village of Meadowsweet by a loving couple who perished in an accident involving a bridge railing.  His only remaining relative was Uncle Amos, the owner of a country residence devoted to providing a comfortable existence for various privileged animals.

One day he received a letter informing him that his uncle had died, leaving him 500 lbs. and Rosy, his cherished pachyderm.  Rosy was soon delivered via an enormous dray drawn by eight exhausted horses.  Following a lady-like exit, Rosy removed Adrian’s hat which she put on her own head.  Then she ambled off toward the local pub in search of beer, which she loved.  Adrian had arranged for housing with the local coffin-maker, Mr. Pucklehammer, possessor of a large yard and shed normally used for rare woods and funerary appurtenances, but this was a short-lived expedient, as Rosy’s habits – drink and curiosity – interfered with Mr. Pucklehammer’s routine.  After mutual consultation with said Mr. P, Adrian obtained leave from his employers and decided to walk Rosy to the coast in search of a Circus or Fair that might possibly be interested in hiring her.

They set off one delightful morning in the spring sunshine, admiring the flowers and woods, following little-frequented byways so as to avoid traffic and liquid temptations of the pub sort.  Topping a small grassy hill, they stopped to rest for a while.  Adrian was entertaining his new pet with a short concert of banjo music, when a series of loud horn blasts was heard across the valley, followed by a fox dashing through the underbrush.  Soon a pack of hounds, tongues lolling, raced by, succeeded by an enthusiastic clutch of red-uniformed riders blowing cornets and shouting.  Rosy became excited and in the ensuing brawl, picked the Huntmaster up and dropped him at Adrian’s feet.  In the resulting astonishment and shrieking, Adrian and Rosy managed to quietly merge into the trees.

At evening’s approach, the pair found themselves confronted by a very large set of iron-clad gates, evidently guarding the approach to a major estate.  A suave young man smoking a cigarette invited them inside and supervised the installment of Rosy in the nearby horse-stables.  After dinner, Lord Fenneltree, their host, persuaded a reluctant Adrian to allow Rosy to participate in an upcoming birthday celebration in honor of his wife.  The idea was to decorate the elephant with Indian garments and a howdah, and, with his lordship riding on top, to make a grand entrance for the edification and amazement of the guests.  Things didn’t function as planned.  Rosy slipped on the polished tiles and slid across the room, demolishing the groaning board of food and drink, and bringing the concomitant decorations crashing to the floor.  Mrs. Fenneltree was not amused.

Escaping the consequences of the catastrophe, Rosy and Adrian escaped to the sheltering woods and spent the next several days avoiding the notice of potential officers of the law.  Parked on another hill they happened to meet a white witch, named Black Nell, who advised them to  travel to Scallop Island, just off the coast, and to inquire for a Mr. Ethelbert Creep, who might be interested in employing an elephant.  On the way, they stop at the Unicorn and Harp pub where they make friends with Peregrine Filigree who is a reincarnationist, and his daughter Samantha, who is competent at everything.  She helps them evade the police and puts them on the right path to the coast.  While traveling on the ferry from Sploshport on Solent, Rosy very much enjoys the boat ride, rocking back and forth with her eyes half-closed.

They find refuge with Mr. Creep, following the sound of his tuba-playing until they discern a deserted shack on the outskirts of town.  Mr. Creep introduces them to Emanuel Clattercup, a local stage manager, who, with maniacal gusto, hires Rosy to act in his upcoming production of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”.  Opening night, Rosy unluckily finds an abandoned bottle of brandy and with its help contrives to wreck the theater through her unfamiliarity with the newly installed revolving stage.  Surprised, she tries to keep up with its rotational motion, causing to run faster and faster, ending in total destruction of the scenery and associated appendages and accouterments.  In the havoc, Adrian and Rosy escape to the mainland, but are arrested and brought up before Judge Sir Magnus Ramping Fumitory.  Due to the cleverness of Samantha and Lord Crispin Turvey, all charges are dismissed and the characters retire to the vicinity of the Unicorn and Harp for a celebratory picnic.  Rosy unearths a barrel of cherry brandy and runs away, over the flowery hills and dales, chased by a stream of picnickers, all waving bottles, bread sticks and sandwiches, laughing and giggling into the sunset.

Gerald Durrell, of course, was the brother of Lawrence, the author of the Alexandria Quartet, the Black Book and other famous works.  Mr. Durrell spent his life collecting animals and supervising zoos, and wrote quite a few books, most of them riotously humorous but some of them at the opposite extreme.  I read a copy of his ghost stories years ago that i still remember when i occasionally wake up in the middle of the night.  I like his writing a lot and trust that others might do so as well…

 

 

THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN SINGLETON

Daniel DeFoe (1660-1731)

Kidnapped as a two-year-old child, young Singleton was passed from hand to hand like a bag of groceries until he was six years of age.  Placed in the first of a series of parish schools, he was a poor student and ran off when he was twelve.  A friendly captain gave him a job as cabin boy and took him to Newfoundland, introducing him to the sea and making a sailor out of him.  He called him “Bob”.  Later voyages took Bob to the Mediterranean where he was captured by Algerine pirates and rescued by a Portugese vessel.  He had a sort of early career with the Portugese, traveling to Brazil and the East Indies as a sailor.  But he  acquired a dark reputation, through thievery, and learned to hate the Portugese as “cowards and braggarts”.

Returning from a trading trip to Goa, Bob joined a group of mutineers that were marooned on the island of Madagascar by the captain after a minor shipwreck.  They were left with food and other supplies in addition to tools and other necessaries.  By this time Bob was generally recognized as a leader of men, and under his direction, the mutineers built a boat and sailed around the island.  Their relations with the natives were peaceful in general, with occasional difficulties resulting in the expenditure of bullets.  But the party was not happy with being stranded on the island, large as it was, and finally decided to cross the straits to Africa.  Which they did, after building a larger boat.

In Africa, they were in a quandary for a while, not being able to decide whether to sail up to the Red Sea, around the Cape of Good Hope, or to travel across the continent.  Bob convinced them that trekking across to Angola was their only viable option, so that’s what they did.  The made friends with a local tribe, and obtained porters and pack animals for the long journey, and left their camp at 12 degrees, 35’S and, sailing up the Quilloa river in Mozambique, they began their 1800 mile journey, which was to take them three years to complete.  They met hostile tribes on the way and found a lot of gold in both nugget and dust form that had washed down from various mountain ranges.  At one point they discovered a very large body of fresh water and marched north along the shore until the reached a river.  Several of the trekkees identified it as the Nile*.  Continuing west, they crossed more mountains and eventually arrived at the Gold Coast with a very large amount of gold.  They exchanged it for cash money, dealing with several Dutch traders who had stations in the area.

Bob returned to England at the first opportunity and was there for two years, during which time he squandered all his money on the proverbial wine, women. and song.  Then he managed to get to Spain where he met Harris, another moneyless sailor.  The two of them obtained passage to Brazil but on the way they fomented a mutiny and took over the ship with which they turned pirate and after looting three other ships found themselves the owners of 16,ooo pieces of eight.  One of the persons they captured was William Walters, a Quaker surgeon, who agreed to join them, but only if they would consider his opinions and judgements in their nefarious actions.  This agreed to, they spent another year on the Brazilian coast wreking havoc amidst local shipping  until the area became too hot for them.  So they decided to pursue their collective interests on the other side of the globe.

They made a bay in Madagascar a base of sorts for awhile, until they found themselves attracted to the Indian Ocean and points south, looking for Dutch carracks and Chinese junks to plunder.  After several years of piratical activity (during which William was an effective voice for the exercise of mercy as regards the unfortunate victims), they decided they had enough money, spices, and  raw gold, and vowed to give up stealing.  At this point they had two ships, and there was argument about how exactly to profit from their gains and where to go when they were cashed out.

Sailing back to Madagascar, the collaborative decision was to split the profits and disappear.  William and Bob wanted to leave the rest of the band without recriminations or interference, so they  planned one more sojourn up the Persian Gulf to Basra, where under the pretext of selling the ships they managed to give the crew the slip.  Dressed as Armenians with long beards, they travelled with their many chests of provender and valuables up the Euphrates and across the deserts to Alexandria, finally ending up in Venice, where they lived for two years.  By this time, Bob, through the influence of William, had come to regret his immoral and criminal behavior, and, although he had formerly regarded the whole earth as his home, agreed to return to England.  The pair reached William’s sister’s house in due course and lived quietly for ever.  Bob married the sister after a while.

This was a typical DeFoe novel, with lots of action and scene shifts.  His writing style is fluent and easily comprehensible;  actually newspaper-like, as he made his living writing for journals and broadsheets.  I presume that his purpose in writing the book was to remark upon the uncivil behavior of pirates, and stealing in general, but he really seemed taken away by his own descriptions of terrain and battles, to the point that any moralistic intention was pretty well blanketed under vivid renditions of naval engagements and violent clashes with natives.  I liked it, which might say more about me than i would normally be willing to admit, haha…

*It’s quite interesting that DeFoe’s “discovery” of the source of the Nile occurred almost one hundred years before it was actually found by Speke and Grant.  He pinpointed it at 6 degrees, 30’S, which is remarkably close to where it actually is at Victoria Falls, near the equator.  It makes me wonder whether the geographers of that period were more familiar with Africa than we today realize.

IN THE LAND OF WHITE DEATH

Valerian Albanov (1881-1919)

At the end of the 19th century, the problem of the North-East passage had yet to be resolved.  Explorers and merchants were interested in discovering whether or not there was a way to sail through the ice pack above Russia and Siberia and to access thereby the riches of the orient.  Georgiy Brusilov and his uncle General Boris Brusilov became enthused about the financial opportunities proffered by successfully pioneering such a route and the General stated his willingness to foot the expenses of an expedition directed at that end.

They hired a crew -32 men -acquired a ship, the St. Anne, and left Murmansk in north-western Russia in August, 1912.  Valerian Albanov was employed as navigator.  The voyage was ostensibly purposed as a hunting expedition, as the market for furs of various sorts was a major component of the economy of the times.

Almost immediately the ship was caught in the pack ice.  It drifted north in a zig-zag fashion for a year and half while the crew and officers became more and more lethargic and stultified.  They still had plenty of food but they began to run out of essential materiel with which to maintain the ship and rigging.  Shooting seals and polar bears had supplemented their dietary requirements, but to Albanov the future looked bleak.  So he convinced 22 of the crew members to accompany him, with the captain’s permission, on a sledge/ski attempt to reach Cape Flora on Northbrook island in the Franz Joseph archipelago.  This was a very small sealer’s haven that was regularly visited by hunters and seal oil ships.  It was located about 200 miles south east of their position.

Albanov managed to build seven sledges and seven canoes from wood and iron salvaged from the ship and departed with the others in April, 1914.  Almost immediately the heavy sledges proved immensely difficult to handle.  They were so designed that the canoes were tied on top;  each unit weighing about 400 pounds.  Pressure ridges and jagged, uplifted blocks  impeded progress and frequent open channels and fissures necessitated the expenditure of extra labor to detour around them.  The first day they made three miles, and although they did better afterwords, they never were able to travel much more than 6 or 8 miles in a day.  And the ice continued drifting north.  After trekking for four days and struggling for 22 miles, Albanov’s noon sighting showed they had only attained 3 miles from the last location of the ship.

Accidents occurred in which the stove was lost in a polynya (an open pond) and men began disappearing.  Three of them gave up and returned to the St. Anne and one wandered off, convinced that he saw land on the horizon.  Both compasses broke and the chronometer was damaged, so Albanov was never sure about their exact location.  Snow blindness was common and extremely painful.  Occasionally the pack ice broke up.  On one floe they discovered ski tracks and were disconcerted to realize that they were their own.  Storms were frequent and soggy clothes, dirt and lice made them miserable.

But they  were encouraged by finding sand on one floe and by the increase in bird sightings, particularly gulls that drove them mad with their overwhelming noise.  Men had continued dying, and soon after actually spotting land off to the east, two members of the crew absconded with most of the remaining food and gear, leaving the rest to starve and drown.  But those left managed to reach the land and to climb a steep ice barrier via a vertical crack in order to step onto rocks and dirt after two years of fighting to stay alive on the ice.

Eggs and Eider ducks were abundant and the survivors feasted to repletion.  But they were all so tired and sluggish that they couldn’t decide what to do next.  Cape Flora was their destination, but there was disagreement on how to get there.  Four of the men decided to travel by land, on skis, but Albanov and two others knew that the only hope was to use the canoes, paddling from cape to cape until they arrived.  So one morning the latter woke up to discover that the four had left, taking with them most of the supplies.  The only thing left to do was to start paddling again.  One of strongest remaining crew members was Alexander Konrad.  He was in one canoe and Albanov was in the other.  They faced violent storms, strong currents, aggressive walruses, occasional immersions and constant headaches, but they persevered, fighting their weariness and squeezing the last bit of energy and volition out of themselves until they reached Cape Flora at last.  The last man besides Albanov and Konrad died, but when the two remaining reached their goal they found shacks and cabins in widely varying states of repair, some collapsed, some ruined, but a few in livable condition.  They waited in hope of visitors and at last a ship was sighted in the offing and summoning up their remaining strength they canoed their way to it.

Rescued at last, they were soon discomfited by finding out that the ship was almost out of coal for its steam engine and that it was leaking a lot.  Before they finally arrived at Archangel in north east Russia, they were once again briefly trapped in the ice and worn out from operating the hand pumps 24 hours a day to keep from sinking.  The ship was reduced to a bare skeleton, all the superstructure having disappeared into the maw of the boiler furnace.

Some years later, the diary of Alexander Konrad was found and had some interesting additions to add to the epic story.  It was worded in such a way as to indicate that Konrad had been one of the two mutineers who had left the rest to starve and die on the ice even though he had later returned to help Albanov survive.  Whether this actually the case or not will probably never be known, as it was not specifically stated.  But the truth remains that Konrad was probably, besides Albanov, the most capable and energetic member of the  crew.

One of the symptoms of trichinosis, a parasitic roundworm found in polar bears, is lethargy and weakness.  There’s some speculation that many if not all of the trekkers suffered from this condition, as they were reduced to eating raw meat for the last part of their journey.  Albanov died in 1919, blown up in a railway station while returning to Moscow from Siberia:  apparently related to the Russian Revolution.  Konrad lived on until after the second World War.  The St. Anne and the rest of the crew were never heard from again.