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Darwin in Love

 

Norman Lock

 

 

                He had been dead many years when he finally arrived in Africa.  Long enough to devolve into an egg custard, he said.  A blancmange.  Though meant in jest, I thought his remark tasteless and told him so.  Humph! he peeved, tugging at his beard. 

            “I ought to have no earthly existence at all,” Darwin continued in that smug way of his.  “After all I’ve been through.”

            “My friend Pennington is also dead,” I told him, hoping to puncture the inflated opinion he had of himself. 

            “Yes, I met the gentleman.”

            “Where?” I asked suspiciously.

            (You recall I returned Pennington to the wild forest people in the condition I had found him: rather worse for wear -- he was a corpse after all! -- and, if not talkative, glumly capable of speech if incapable of satisfying my curiosity concerning the hereafter.) 

            “Where did you meet him?” I repeated, nudging him with the toe of my boot from his rapt contemplation of the dirt.          

            “In the Sweet-by-and-by,” said Darwin -- maliciously, for I knew him to be an unrepentant materialist, who had given his name to a pernicious and irreligious science.  “Outside time, where all times are one and the equality of death places everyone on an equal footing.”

            “Pennington would have nothing to do with you,” I sneered.  “He is a lady’s man.”

             “Shit!” said Darwin, and snuffled disagreeably.

            “Pardon me?” I asked, ready to take offense.

            “I have mistaken this dried rhino dung for a bit of Paleozoic stratum.”  He snuffled a second time.  “My nose is not what it used to be.”

            “Did you see Pennington in the forest?” I demanded.

            “Here and there,” said Darwin.  “Here, there, and everywhere!”

            And he brayed a laugh that set my hairs on end!

            “I should like to kill you,” I told him in all sincerity, “if it were only still possible.”

            “All things are possible ...” he said.  “But not that!” he hastened to add.

            I sighed and, hearing the silver bell announce the cocktail hour, turned on my heel and left him to his dung.

 

*

            “I met the most annoying man.”

            “Oh?” Colette said, allowing a long blue plume of cigarette smoke to leak from her mouth.

            My eyes watered the way they always did in the presence of strong tobacco.  (Siggy’s cigars are the worst, and I insisted that my analysis be conducted in plein-air.)

            “Charles Darwin,” I said.

            “I thought he was dead.”

            “His ideas persist and, with them, the man.”

            The elegant sophism pleased me immensely, and I looked to her for admiration.  She withheld it, absorbed as she was in the ember at the end of her Abdullah.

            I sat at the bar and developed my idea: those who leave us, finally, with a body of work -- philosophical, scientific, poetical -- seem to be with us always, seem ... familiar, as if they not only breathed air yet, but breathed the same air as we.  It is this feeling that might best describe immortality.  But what of those who leave nothing behind? I asked myself anxiously; for I was sure to be one of them.  Are we to be cheated of eternity simply because our brains are not so evolved as the more gifted among us?  Would God (or, if not God, the universe) be so undemocratic?  So ... elitist?

            I was angry.  At the injustice of it all, which continued outside time as it does inside it.  I picked up my double-barreled Holland and let fly at the King, his portrait which hung over the bar.

            Colette jumped inside her dress.

            The barman picked up a decorative Masai spear and flung it at me, “for indignities against His Majesty.”

            Pritchett, chief of the Mombasa constabulary, materialized with a squad of handsome askari policemen, all creased khakis and polished shoes.

*

            “It was only an effigy!” I insisted, referring to the King’s blasted portrait.

            I was standing before the judge, trying to suppress the urge to laugh at his judicial wig, which, for some reason, was in motion atop his head like a hedgehog.  Perhaps the wig (a “peruke”) was animated by his Lordship’s fury.    

            “It was only an effigy,” I repeated.

            While my lawyer began my defense, I elaborated on the vexed relationship of an image to a thing, a metaphor to its referent and so on.  Symbolic language is something I have always thought a good deal about.  I don’t know why.  Anna claimed it was a waste of time -- my obsession with semiotics, as it has come to be called.  She called it “a fucking bore,” preferring pinochle and sex.  Though I could never work up much interest in card games, I like sex, quite a lot; but one cannot always be humping -- as Quigley observed.  From time to time one must think, of this I am certain.  Watching his Lordship bridle impatiently against the ermine restraints of due process, my thoughts returned to his wig.  Why should I be fascinated, I asked myself, by words like “peruke” and ... “antimacassar”-- for the first quite naturally suggests the second?  There must be more instructive things to think about.  Sigmund thinks about the unconscious mind; Albert, gravity and relativity; the Wright brothers, about the curve of a wing.  And now here is Darwin, thinking even in death about sedimentary rocks and whatnot.  And Colette -- what is she thinking as she sits in the sultry courtroom, waiting for judgment to be pronounced on me?  Ah, the boy pulling the punkah!  We are, all of us, true to our natures.

            I rose, cleared my throat, and launched myself into the proceedings.

            “I would like to say, by way of extenuation, a word about nature and how it rules us cradle to grave and” -- with a nod to Darwin, who just then was peering in at the window -- “beyond.”

            “Silence!” screamed the judge, who was in no mood for intellectual subtleties.  “I have had you before me on two previous occasions,” he said sternly.  “Once for creating a public disturbance by parading the corpse of your friend Pennington --”

            “A fetish!” I interrupted. 

            Again, the judge adjured me to silence.

            “And a second time for the murder of the Bishop of Mombasa.”

            The Bishop stood and showed himself, the marks my fingers had left on his neck still visible.

            “Not proved!” my lawyer objected.

            “He is the man!” the Bishop screeched, shaking an accusatory finger at me.  “He is my murderer!”

            The Bishop’s words created an immediate sensation in the courtroom. 

            “Inadmissible!” my lawyer shouted above the din.  “The words of a ghost have no weight in jurisprudence.”  (I closed my eyes and watched as the Bishop’s words rose through the ceiling, each a gaudy-colored balloon reminding me of lingerie.  Oh, I was enjoying myself!)  And then my lawyer quoted Hamlet:

                        The spirit that I have seen

                        May be the devil, and the devil hath power

                        T’ assume a pleasing shape .... 

 

            Considering that the Bishop’s shape -- quick or dead -- was far from pleasing, I let my eyes rove until they came to rest, happily, on someone whose was.

            Colette. 

            Will I become her lover? I wondered. 

*

            “I could have sent you to the gallows,” said Darwin with characteristic smugness.  “I was a witness to the Bishop’s murder -- deserve it though he might.  The view from the next evolutionary rung is excellent.”

            I remarked that his testimony would have been as inadmissible as the victim’s, both lacking credibility in their present -- highly dubious -- state.

            “Yours, even less credible,” I added brutally.

            “Why do you say that?” he asked, offended.

            “Because you are an atheist and therefore unable to swear by Holy Writ with any persuasion.”

            “But I am a great man!” he objected.  “I am a member of the Royal Society and the French Academy of Sciences!”

            “Was,” I reminded him, exulting in my cruelty.  “Was a member.”

            “I was buried in Westminster Abbey!  A rare distinction!”

            “Are.  You are buried in Westminster Abbey, and I wish you would return there at once.”

            He crumpled, like a wounded rhino in mid-charge.

            “I don’t mean to be unkind,” I said, relenting.  “But I’ve had a bellyful of great men!  Africa is a Mecca for them!  And it has been my fate to meet them -- one and all.”  I sighed.  “You can have no idea how wearisome that is: to be subjected, morning, noon, and night to the genius of others -- to their eccentricities.  Their funny little ways.  Is it any wonder I’ve become a drunkard -- a laughingstock from one end of the continent to the other?”

            I was, by now, crying in my beer.  Or, rather, sobbing into my gin -- the little glass of it that sat quietly and peremptorily before me on the bar of the Mombasa Hotel.

            Darwin was embarrassed.

            “What do you want?” I asked him.  “What is it that you want in Africa?”

            “To find the missing link!” he averred.  “Evidence of the species that once stood between man and ape.  Mediator between the human and the simian world.”

            “Oh, you mean Kong,” I replied. “He showed up several years ago, moped around Mrs. Willoughby’s topiary garden a while, then carried her off.”

            “Off?”

            “Ravished her.  Claimed he couldn’t live without her!  Fellow’s a notorious philanderer.  He may dress like a gentleman, but -- believe me -- he’s not.  I fought a duel with him over Mrs. Willoughby, who was and is the Object of My Desire.  A duel with cigars.  Lost, unfortunately.  I just can’t tolerate strong tobacco.”

*

            “In your arms life reasserts itself,” I told Colette as we snuggled under the mosquito net.  We were in my room, not far from Freud’s office on Queen Victoria Street.  In my anxiety I took courage in his nearness.  “Desire beats up inside me, and death retreats.”

            I was sincere.  I did feel the icy grip of death let go as Colette rummaged me.  Death let go its hand and retreated, although only a little way.  I saw it standing in the corner of the room where the shadows were thickest.

            “My chéri,” she breathed into my ear, moistening it with her tender words.

            I studied her as I had not done a woman since Anna, in Dayton, among the oiled chains and lamps at the back of the Wright brothers’ bicycle shop.  My fingertips read the formations of hips, buttocks, and bone, the pelvic estuary, the mounds of her breasts.  (Oh, sweet to be buried there!)  In return her hands traced butte and plain; her lips, brushing mine, banished doubt; and with her hair she swept away a bitter unhappiness.   

            “It is the geology of love,” said Darwin, for whom there could be no secrets.

            Colette was asleep, and he had stepped out of the closet to speak to me.

            “The lover digs and, digging, discovers his lost self in the beloved.  Digs with a spade soft as feathers, down through the sediment of time and habit until the shining ore of youth is uncovered.  To be gloried in.”

            The sight of our love-making had temporarily aroused his long insensate body and with it a Swinburnian rapture.

            “I wish I were a boy again, in Shrewsbury, undressing a girl for the first time behind the hayricks.”  He lifted the mosquito net and looked at Colette.  “She’s beautiful,” he said, and in his voice I heard the tremolo of desire.  And then he sighed for, being one of the dead, he knew the fate of every living thing on earth. 

            “Geological forces are marking her, eroding her.  This lovely flesh will press against the sheets of time and leave its fossil record there.  An invalid in the Palais-Royal Hotel, she will climb into her last bed, in Paris, on August 3, 1954.  Soon, no one will be living who remembers her face or these sweet hills.”  He reached out a hand to touch her breast, hesitated, and in that hesitation I saw the struggle of non-being to enter the mortal world.  He withdrew his hand, sadly.

            “Alas!” he said, for he was a Victorian after all and entitled to his anachronisms.

            “Prince Kong is in town,” I said, closing the mosquito net over Colette’s nakedness.  “I suspect he’s come for her.”

            Darwin was incensed.

            “I’ll castrate the rapscallion!” he shouted.  “I’ll display his pickled member to the great British public!  The indignities suffered by the Elephant Man will be as nothing next to his!” 

            I led him outside onto the balcony to calm him with a view of the busy street.  But he would not be calmed.

            Darwin was in love.

*

            “You’ve made a new conquest,” I told Colette as we were eating our breakfast in the Mombasa Hotel Grille.

            “Oh?” she asked, buttering her toast.

            “Charles Darwin.”

            “Such a dreary man.”

            “Where is your novelist’s curiosity?” I taunted her.

            “Nothing could induce me to satisfy it with him!”

            And in the crunching of a piece of toast, I heard the bones of past lovers.

            Just then, Kong appeared, dressed as he had been for the abduction of Mrs. Willoughby: tuxedo, top hat, spats, and yellow gloves -- the very image of an effete dandy.  If I didn’t know him to be dangerous, I would have laughed.  He bowed mockingly at me and then, setting eyes on Colette, swaggered over to our table.

            “I give you back your Mrs. Willoughby,” he smirked.  “She no longer interests me.  But this --.”  He took Colette’s hand and kissed it.  “This lovely lady is of supreme interest.”

            Colette yawned and took her hand away.

            Kong’s lips retreated in a sneer, uncovering his formidable teeth.

            “We shall see,” he said imperiously, pulling off his gloves.

            “There is someone who would like to know you better,” I said with happy spite.

            “And who might that be?”

            “Charles Darwin.”

            “That ass!” he snarled.  “Absurd to think I could have anything in common with you or your cretinous kind!”  He stood and beat his breast.  “I am the culmination, the flowering and highest expression of my species -- a species infinitely superior to you poor, bald, sexually repressed humans!”

            In his indignation he would have leapt onto the chandelier if I had not restrained him.

            “We are absolutely not related!” he shouted.

            Evidently, evolution was a sore point with him, too.

            Colette was amused.

            “So mankind did not descend from the monkeys?” she asked.

            Kong composed himself and, after a moment, replied haughtily: “Insofar as man is a degenerate of my race -- yes, he can be said to have descended.  Apes are perfect in the way anything is perfect that is completed.  As you still struggle to be.”

            He pulled on his gloves and, turning to Colette, icily concluded: “If men and monkeys are related, it is -- I assure you -- only distantly and not a family connection we are pleased to acknowledge.”

*

            “He’s a very virile man,” said Colette admiringly.

            “He’s not a man.  He’s a beast!”

            I was annoyed.  Kong had ruined one love affair, and I was determined not to let him spoil my chances with Colette.

            “All men are beasts,” she replied.

            Knowing full well the truth of this, I was momentarily silenced.  I took advantage of the silence to unbutton her blouse.  If all men are beasts, I might as well behave beastly.

            “Not now, I’m writing!” she scolded.

            “Why don’t you use a typewriter?”

            “The machine isn’t sensuous.”

            I caressed her.

            “Nothing is more sensuous than a devoted lover,” I whispered.

            She shook her head.

            “Words,” she said.  “Words are the most sensuous thing of all.”

            (How I hate writers and their paradoxes!)

            I lay on the bed and sulked while her pen scratched, scratched, scratched through the hot afternoon.

            “Kong has debauched Mrs. Willoughby,” I said.

            Colette smiled.

            I closed my eyes and slept.

            And woke to find her gone.

*

            “I envy him,” I said.

            “It is always so,” Darwin replied wistfully.  “The more evolved species yearns nostalgically for its primitive ancestor.  The fish dreams of plankton, indolent in sunlight.  The salamander, of a worm eating its way through the chocolate earth.  Modern men long to exchange their politics and poetry, their brass bands and flying-machines for the frank and sauntering ways of animals.”

            And as if he had sailed all the way from St. Louis in order to illustrate this very point, Cromwell Dixon passed overhead in his cigar-shaped blimp.

            “What wouldn’t he give to be a bird!” said Darwin.  “Even an archaeopteryx winging through empty Jurassic skies.”

            Cromwell waved to us, and we returned his greeting, wishing him well though he looked awkward and ridiculous above the streets of Mombasa.  A foolish, flimsy poem of flight.

            “What do you long for?” I asked Darwin as an unaccustomed tenderness rose up in me. 

            “The creature from which I have descended,” he answered.  “A boy in Shrewsbury.  A young man in Tierra del Fuego and Port Desire.  An old man retired happily in Kent.  I envy the living.”

*

            I met Colette at the bar.  She had been with Darwin.  She had been curious, after all, to know him better. 

            “From the point of view of the novelist,” she said; but I suspected her curiosity was that of a woman for a man -- a genius, after all, of immense experience and renown.

            He had, she said, disappointed.

            He had, she said, no romance.

            They had stood looking out to sea. The water hissed and sighed. The moon was a bronze parenthesis; the black sky, dusted with stars.

            She invited him to look at the moon, but he looked at shells instead -- “the ocean’s broken crockery.”

            The stars! she pleaded, but he was transfixed by what lay under his feet.

            “I am no romantic,” he said.

            “But doesn’t the lovely Mombasa night move you?” she demanded.

            “I can no longer be moved,” he replied.

            “Sadly,” she told me.  “So that I pitied him.”

            She had taken his hand.  He permitted it.

            “His hand was cold,” she told me.

            “What did you expect?” I asked angrily.

            “Why are you angry?”

            I shrugged.  I didn’t know.

            She took my hand.  She wanted to feel its warmth.  She was suddenly afraid.  The shadows in the corners of the room were uncommonly dark.  Night pressed against the window as if wanting to get in.  At the far end of the bar, someone began to cry.  I felt the old anxiety.  I gulped down my gin.  And another, “for courage.”  And then, holding each other’s hands, we hurried upstairs to my room to forget.


© 2001 Norman Lock

NormanGLock@cs.com

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