CHAPTER THREE

 

Later that afternoon Lord Handon, desiring as much to show off his house as to entertain his guests in a relatively educative manner, took those of them who hadn't set foot in it before on a brief tour of inspection, starting with the ground floor and working up to the bedrooms in which each of them had been allocated a bed for the night.  Sarah Field expressed her delight in and amazement at what the host had in store for them, whereas Timothy Byrne, though intrigued by the scale of everything, remained somewhat cooler and more objectively detached than the others, as though in an effort not to be too impressed by anything, least of all by its scale or amount.

    It was in the library, for instance, that he acquired his first real glimpse of an aristocratic norm where books were concerned - a glimpse, alas, which did little but confirm him in his low opinion of aristocratic libraries generally!  Stretching some thirty yards along the length of an entire wall and reaching to a height of about ten feet from the floor, the shelves of this particular library were crammed full of rather cumbersome-looking leather-backed tomes of ancient lineage, which had doubtless been handed down from generation to generation of the Handon family line.  There must have been upwards of 20,000 books there, most of which had probably never been read, at least not by the present owner, the 4th Viscount Handon.  They had probably just stood there for centuries, gathering dust.  Only a tiny fraction of them, at best, would have had their pages turned and perused in a thoroughly curious manner.... Though quite a number may well have served a brief reference purpose which the owner felt it incumbent upon himself to engage in from time to time.  Indeed, many of them were so large, so weighty and lengthy, that it was inconceivable they could possibly serve any other purpose than one of reference, since, even with all the time in the world, such tomes would have taken months, if not years, to peruse individually.  For the most part, they were simply decorative possessions which the viscount had considered it expedient to hold-on to for family honour and to satisfy the scholarly traditions of his class - extremely expensive possessions which would fetch a tidy sum from any prospective buyer, if ever he or any of his descendants decided to sell.

    Oh, yes!  And as Timothy scanned the tightly packed shelves of cumbersome tomes, he realized that their purchase could run into hundreds-of-thousands of pounds.  But that wasn't something by which he intended to be unduly impressed.  On the contrary, he needed to keep his customary attitude to the existence of such collections in mind - an attitude which, rather than being impressed by them, tended towards their condemnation on grounds of excessive materialism.  As the Biblical proverb had it: 'Easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven', and, by God, how true, in a funny kind of figurative way, that statement was!  Weighed down by the extent and scale of his possessions, it seemed pretty evident to Timothy that men like Joseph Handon were almost at the furthest possible remove from the 'Kingdom of Heaven', which is to say, the Omega Point - the climax of evolution in spiritual transcendence.  Burdened by so many material belongings, it was inconceivable that the viscount could be anything but a kind of spiritual tail-ender on the journey to God, a victim of the Devil in materialistic dominion - the higher materialistic dominion, on the one hand, of the man-made, which included his house, and the lower materialistic dominion, on the other hand, of nature.  For as Timothy could plainly see via the library windows, there was no shortage of sensuous, subconsciously-dominated plant life in the immediate vicinity!  The viscount's land stretched around the house virtually as far as the eye could see, and contained more than a few trees, bushes, hedges, etc., which testified to the prevalence of the Devil's influence there, even though a degree of cultivation had been brought to bear on them, especially to the north of the house.  Yet cultivated or not, nature was still of partly diabolic origin and nothing man did, by way of reshaping or pruning it, could ever alter that fact.  Nor was it altogether surprising that, surrounded by so much land, the Handons hadn't been particularly appreciative of Timothy's transcendentalism, since they were the victims of so much subconscious influence.  One could hardly live in the middle of the country and adopt a Mondrian-like disdain for nature!

    No, it was perfectly obvious that they were not the ears for his mouth, to paraphrase Nietzsche, but, given their stately circumstances, would either be offended by what he said, as in the case of Lady Pamela, or somewhat perplexed by it, as in the case of the more benign Lord Handon, who nevertheless endeavoured, in his capacity of host, to remain as receptive as possible.  Still, one could understand the human aspirations in the face of nature which had led to the building of large country houses like Rothermore.  Rather than risk being dwarfed by the surrounding countryside, the aristocracy had sought to tame and dominate it as best they could, and the erection of the largest possible houses had gone some way towards satisfying that end.  After all, even the ancient aristocracy were human beings, not animals, and consequently they reflected human aspirations towards the Divine Omega, no matter how crudely or materialistically.  Even the viscount's great-great-great-grandfather would have had a spirit of sorts and found it desirable to cultivate that spirit to at least some extent, even if only to the rather limited extent of collecting thousands of cumbersome books and filling his house with Greek or Roman statuary.  For, as the library amply demonstrated, there was no shortage of classical sculpture on display, though most of it was undoubtedly derivative.  In fact, it was difficult not to stumble against various of the statues, statuettes, and busts, as one gingerly wound one's way between the tables and chairs liberally scattered along the length of Lord Handon's library, as though in anticipation of a whole tribe of avid readers.  Doubtless a certain horror vacui had possessed the original furnisher of this room, which duly resulted in its becoming virtually crammed with possessions, both aesthetic and utilitarian.  And the current owner had not rebelled against the fashion of his ancestors but, if the comparative newness of one or two of the chairs and tables was any indication, had succumbed to it with a few materialistic additions of his own!  Well, judging by the amount of furniture already in the room, it was pretty obvious that Lord Handon wouldn't be able to add much else to it in future, not unless he either sold off most of what was already there or set about filling up the interior space of certain other rooms - assuming, of course, that they still had any such space left to fill.  As yet, Timothy had only seen a couple of the downstairs rooms, so he wasn't really in a position to judge.  But what he had seen was more than enough to make him pessimistic about the rest of the house, bathrooms and toilets not excepted!

    Yet, by an ironic paradox, it could also be claimed that this urge to collect and fill one's rooms with expensive possessions was a further indication of aristocratic man's desire not to be dwarfed or smothered by nature, but to extend civilization to the extent he could.  The regrettable thing, however, was that he could only extend it, for the most part, in materialistic terms, not in terms, significant of the spiritual, which stood at the furthest remove from sensuous nature.  With him, it was more a case of endeavouring to protect oneself against a greater evil with the aid of a lesser good.  Whereas it was increasingly becoming the tendency of modern man to protect himself against a lesser good with the aid of a greater good, which is to say, to bring forward the direct cultivation of the spirit through meditation at the expense of its indirect cultivation through culture.  No small distinction!  But aristocratic man, reflected Timothy, hadn't really been in a position to do any such thing, and so the indirect cultivation of the spirit through culture was, as a rule, the best that could be done.

    And not generally the most elevated culture either, if Lord Handon's library was anything by which to judge!  One searched in vain, among the numerous sculptures on display, for anything with a direct bearing on Christianity.  Not a single statue, statuette, or bust of a senior Church dignitary, not even of a pope or an archbishop, and no reproductions of saints or evangelists either.  Except for some busts dedicated to the memory of various members of the Handon line, the entire collection revolved around classical antiquity, with reproductions of Roman emperors, Graeco-Roman deities, and one or two Greek heroes, like Hercules and Ajax.  Therefore not with a Christian culture, but with the lower pagan culture which had preceded it ... such was the stratagem by means of which the Handons had sought to elevate themselves above nature!  A liberal scattering of naked or semi-naked pagan gods and goddesses about the library had claimed the eye and precluded any serious attempt at self-realization.  One would have looked in vain for even the smallest crucifix there.  It wouldn't have served their materialistic purposes.

    Yet neither, it appeared, would the writings of the great Christian mystics have appealed to this family.  For the bookshelves were mainly dedicated to the pagan authors of classical antiquity, especially the Romans, who figured prominently on the lower shelves.  Possibly everything ever written and preserved for posterity by Sulla, Cicero, Tetullian, Caesar, Scipio, Horace, Senneca, Juvenal, Catullus, Virgil, Terence, and Pliny was to be found there, both in the original Latin and in subsequent English, French, and German translations, reminiscent of the sort of library favoured by that great sixteenth-century humanist, Michel de Montaigne.  By craning one's neck up to the top two shelves at the far end of the library, it was just possible to discern a few large depressing-looking bibles, again in various tongues, but the eye soon encountered the beginnings of a series of books written not by the Church Fathers, as one might vaguely have expected, but by medieval scholastics of a classical turn-of-mind, whose interest in contemporary scientific endeavour extended to a commentary on the Greek philosophers, and whose works now sedately reposed beside the major philosophical achievements of Plato and Aristotle.  Farther along that same shelf the subject of Greek philosophy was superseded by a series of large tomes on alchemy, among them a number by Paracelsus, and beneath these the eye discerned the complete plays of Shakespeare, Racine, Corneille, and Molière in rather old but evidently valuable editions - probably the first or very nearly.  Apart from a number of important literary figures such as Chaucer, Dante, Montaigne, Boccaccio, Rabelais, Petrach, Cevantes, Milton, Byron, and Goethe, the greater part of the remaining shelves was taken-up with histories, memoirs, biographies, letters, philosophies, and books on painting, architecture, graphics, landscape gardening, and sculpture.  In fact, apart from a little modern history, the only contribution the twentieth century seemed to make to Lord Handon's library was in the realm of aesthetics, notably through art books dealing with classical antiquity and the Renaissance.  Judging by the nature of the house itself, one might have thought the Baroque would figure prominently.  But, try as he might, Timothy could discern no more than three works dedicated to that stage of aesthetic evolution, and they were decidedly pre-war, suggesting acquisition by the viscount's father or grandfather rather than by the current owner himself.  Thus apart from the aforementioned histories and studies in classical and renaissance aesthetics, the crisp spines and bright titles of which betrayed comparatively recent purchase, the great majority of the books on display appeared to have been inherited and retained in aristocratic tradition.  Unless by some chance Lord Handon had a second library elsewhere, it looked as though this collection was broadly representative of his intellectual tastes - tastes which completely excluded the modern!  For even the newer books in it had been written in the twentieth century about pre-twentieth century activity, like the studies in classical art.  As regards modern art, a complete blank.  And as regards modern literature, the nearest one came to it appeared to be half-a-dozen novels by Disraeli and a couple by Lytton!  Really, Timothy could hardly believe his eyes, as he frantically scanned the shelves in search of twentieth-century life.  Not even a Proust or a Gide or a Mann.  Nothing!  So far as this library went, the twentieth century didn't exist.  Evidently, Lord Handon had little use for it.  Or would it be nearer the mark to say that it had little use for him?

    It wasn't exactly a question one could ask there and then, not, anyway, while the man in question was so fervently engaged in explaining to both Sarah Field and Nigel Townley how his great-grandfather had acquired the Venus statuette in imitation of Phidias by an unknown Roman sculptor whilst serving as English ambassador to Italy at the time of its discovery.  A quite shapely statuette it was too, but terribly nude and pagan!  It would have been of more interest to Timothy, just then, had someone inquired how the family had come by the worn edition of the Marquis de Sade's 120 Jours de Sodom, which reposed, beside a number of the master's other novels, on a shelf just to the left of where he was now standing, slightly apart from the small group of admiring statuette-gazers.  At least de Sade, for all his moral faults, had the virtue of seeing the criminality in nature at close range, so to speak, and in not pretending that it was really something else.  There was even a dash of the saint about him, albeit in a paradoxically negative kind of way.  For rather than turning towards God and the spiritual with love, like a genuine saint, de Sade had elected to turn against nature and the sensual with contempt, and thereby set about denigrating it in the manner best known to posterity.  Hardly surprising, therefore, that he was condemned as a criminal and regarded as an eccentric in an age of Rousseauesque fervour for nature and Wordsworthian complacency in nature.  His hatred of nature, and the rather extreme manifestation it was increasingly to take, could hardly be described, under the prevailing circumstances, as trendy.  Yet it served as an example of sorts to such negatively inclined 'saints', or anti-saints, as Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Huysmans, who were to bring the anti-natural tradition of decadent writings to a much more refined pass later in the century.  But de Sade, it appeared, was the only anti-saint Lord Handon's library contained, whether or not its current owner appreciated the fact.  In all probability, thought Timothy, as he followed his fellow-guests past the Venus statuette and on towards the exit, the novels by that notorious French nobleman had mouldered on their shelf since virtually the time of their purchase.  The current viscount had probably not even opened them.  Or, if perchance he had, he probably shut them again pretty quickly, fearing contamination!

    They passed out of the library and were, in due course, introduced to most of the other rooms, including a large billiards room in which a couple of lush green felt-topped tables, one full-size and the other small, stood naked but for a cue resting on each.  Apparently billiards and snooker were among the host's favourite pastimes, which he sometimes played with himself, but more often with friends of the family who came-in from nearby country houses to do noble battle with him.

    Neither of the two male guests accompanying him on this particular tour of inspection, however, could admit to being regular practitioners of either game, though Townley confessed to having played a great deal of snooker in his youth - a confession which appeared to endow him with a certain temporary distinction over the others in Lord Handon's eyes.

    Yet, for Timothy, the most interesting aspect of the billiards room was the arrangement of Ionic pilasters which stretched the length of the walls at wide though regular intervals, endowing the setting with a restrained classical elegance.  Being fluted, they took on a symbolically feminine character that sharply contrasted with the masculinity of the bare, white Doric columns which stood at salient points in the room, more suggestive of the interior of a Greek temple than of anything recreational.  In fact, there was even space here for a few statues of Greek athletes, and the wall nearest the full-size table had two curved niches in it, at a distance of some four yards apart, each of which contained a brightly-painted Greek vase of the type which Timothy must have seen hundreds of photos of, during his pictorial investigations in the local library, but had only once before beheld in the flesh, so to speak, and then in the British Museum.  Was this spectacle any better or worse, he wondered?  Curiously, he thought worse.  For he had grown so accustomed to photographic reproductions of works of art ... that he had come to value the reproduction above the original production.  Lord Handon was perfectly entitled to his vases, as to his sculptures, but he, Timothy Byrne, wouldn't have wanted them, not even if he they were offered to him free-of-charge.  He preferred the spiritualization of the material object to the material object itself, and was therefore more at home with photos.  These Greek vases were of course beautiful, but they were even more beautiful, to Timothy's way of thinking, as colour reproductions in some choice book on the arts.  The actual object was somehow disappointing, all too palpably there.  He preferred his culture at a Platonic remove, as it were, from real culture, raised above materialism through spiritual sublimation.  All these sculptures and ceramics which Lord Handon possessed and evidently had need of, to fill his immense house, would have been raised to a higher level, it seemed to him, in photographic reproduction.  Rather than floundering about amidst bodies, as one did here, one would be contemplating their abstracted spirit, at a safe remove from their physical presence.  And one would be experiencing a higher level of culture - a level made possible thanks to the existence of photography.

    Yes, how logical evolution was!  The further one evolved, the more spiritual one became.  Eventually one would even dispense with photographic reproductions.  But not for a while yet, least of all within the foreseeable future.  The twenty-first century would doubtless continue to amass reproductions of the materialistic culture appertaining to an earlier stage of civilized evolution, thereby indirectly furthering the cause of its own spiritual culture.  And Timothy would continue to derive more pleasure from the latter than from the former - of that he assured himself.  In fact, so much so that his facial expression, as he stood no more than a few feet from the nearest Greek vase, must have communicated something of the disdain he was feeling for the object to its owner, who casually remarked, by way of apology, that it was a rather second-rate, first-century item purchased for a modest sum by his grandfather, some decades ago.  Slightly taken aback by the host's unexpected intervention, and a little ashamed of himself for having unwittingly betrayed his feelings on the matter, Timothy blushed faintly and then burst into a forgiving smile.  He could hardly reveal to the viscount what had really been on his mind!

    And so, following their brief but passably educative tour of Rothermore House, the three first-time guests were led back to the large drawing-room, where the rest of the gathering was still assembled, and thereupon encouraged to have another drink, with the aged butler duly officiating.  Dinner, they were informed, would commence at seven-thirty sharp, whether or not the remaining two invitees had arrived.  In the meantime, they were to relax and simply get to know one another better.  Which is what now proceeded to happen ... in spite of their differences.  Even the drawing-room had certain lessons to teach, and Timothy, not least, was avid to learn what he could from it!

 

 

Bookmark and Share