Lucifer's Last Laugh

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Chapter 10

The FBI decides to form a task force to track down Teddy Teawater. As Fuji Shentomoro explains to me, ordinarily the Bureau does not get involved in homicides but it does have a special interest in serial killers. You and I head up the task force along with Inspector Jimmy Shank. This, of course, is in addition to the Boola Boola Shakhur investigation which, despite my protestations, you continue.

“Shakhur is dead. You found his remains in that burned-up Dodge.”

“Maybe,” you say. “But I’m not completely convinced.”

Fortunately, Boola Boola is safely tucked away in a remote corner of Arkansas with various imbecilic but extremely violent followers of the Reverend Bagwell P. Wilcoxon.

After his first meeting with you, Shank takes me aside and whispers in my ear. “You banging her?”

I react with appropriate shock. “Inspector Shank, Special Agent Dribble and I are professional colleagues.”

The foul-minded cop snickers. “Yeah, sure. So I ask again, are you banging her?” When I refuse to answer, Shank raises and lowers his eyebrows in rapid succession and leers. “If you’re not, you should be. She is one bodacious babe.”

Fuji informs us of a possible Teddy Teawater sighting in Providence, Rhode Island. Shank sneers. “I don’t believe it. I think she’s still in the Bay Area.”

Privately I agree with Shank but you are eager to check out Providence. In large part, I suspect, so that you can visit Boola Boola’s alma mater, Brown University. I decide to accompany you.

The day after we arrive in Providence you determine that the Teddy Teawater sighting is bogus and we find ourselves ensconced in the comfortable office of the Dean of Admissions at Brown, Lomita Perry.

Ms. Perry, a strikingly homely woman with stringy hair and an overarching overbite, summons up the records of Richard Waverley. “He certainly wasn’t admitted on the basis of his scholastic record which suggests that he was a quasi-cretin. Ah, here it is, a heritage admission.”

“Meaning his father attended Brown?” you ask.

“Actually, his mother.”

I am perplexed. “You admit the brain dead children of alumni?”

“Of course” says Ms. Perry cheerfully. “Especially if their parents also happen to be extremely rich. It is a key element of our diversity policy. We think it instructive for our students, most of whom are top-notch, to rub shoulders as it were with the worthless offspring of the super-privileged.”

“How enlightened of you.” I can hear your teeth grating.

“In fact, we would love to have Richard back at Brown now that he has changed his name to Boola Boola Shakhur and become a terrorist.”

“And why is that?” you ask.

“Again, part of our continual drive for diversity. 1.27% of our new admits are suspected terrorists.”

“Unfortunately for you, Boola Boola is dead,” I point out.

Ms. Perry pouts. “Too bad.” Then she brightens up. “Although on occasion we have admitted corpses.”

Impatiently you drum your fingers on the Dean’s desk. “We would like to talk to Boola Boola’s professors.”

“Oh dear, he was only with us for three semesters. I doubt very much if he even met a professor.” She scrolls through the college records. “No wait a minute. I take that back. He did take one course in his last semester from Professor Ezra Ounce in Political Science.”

“Fine,” you say, standing up. “Please give us directions to Ounce’s office and have someone notify him that the FBI wishes to speak with him.”

Professor Ezra Ounce inhabits a spacious office tucked in an obscure corner of the Brown campus and is not at all happy to see us.

“You realize you are cutting into my research time,” he greets us with a scowl.

“I’m sure what you are working on is extremely important. . .”

“Damn right it’s important. I am putting the finishing touches on a paper about identity formation among Fiji Islanders with special reference to critiques of Bourdieu, Campbell, Dumont, and Levi-Strauss.”

“Nonetheless, we need to ask you about a student of yours a few years back named Richard Waverley.”

“A student?” Ounce is dumbfounded. “I don’t interact with students. This is a research university.”

“Nevertheless,” you persist, “university records indicate that Richard Waverley enrolled in your ‘Politics as Purulence’ course three years ago.”

Ounce dismisses us with a wave of his hand. “You will have to talk to my Teaching Assistant, Sam Browne. He’s the one who actually deals with students.”

A lowly TA, Sam Browne does not actually have an office but works out of an abandoned closet in the basement of the Natural Sciences building. A tall, emaciated young man of about twenty-five, Browne is a combination geek, nerd and jerk so I therefore mentally classify him as a ‘gerk.’ Still, he is much more cordial than Professor Ounce (upon whom I pronounce nine anathemas) and recalls Boola Boola clearly.

“A terrible student. Almost never read anything. Wrote essays that were complete gibberish. Seemed oddly fascinated by an essay the political philosopher Pantagruel R. Smith published a couple of years earlier, ‘Why Fascism is Fun.’

“It was towards the end of the semester that he changed his name from Richard Waverley to Boola Boola Shakhur and converted to Islam for about two weeks, then to Super Christianity.”

“Do you have any idea what prompted him to do that?”

Sam Browne shrugs. “Not really. One day he was sounding like a maniacal mullah and the next like a crazy-assed Christian. I’m used to college kids undergoing all kinds of political and spiritual transitions but Richard was an extreme case. I hear he’s dead, by the way.”

“Possibly,” you say, causing me ardent anxiety. “What else can you tell us about him?”

Browne rakes poorly trimmed fingernails through his unsightly beard. “Well, towards the end of the class he kept muttering to himself the word ‘Mara’ as if it were some kind of mantra.”

“Do you know what he meant by that?”

Browne shakes his head. You look at me and I respond with a blank stare while thinking to myself that the Mara of the poorly written and vaguely threatening poems seems to get around. Deciding to change the subject, I ask Browne kindly, “When do you plan to finish your graduate work?”

“Soon. I’m ABD now, just putting the finishing touches on my dissertation which is all about identity formation among Fiji Islanders.”

“With special reference to critiques of Bourdieu, Campbell, Dumont, and Levi-Strauss?”

“Yeah, how did you know that?”

“Ezra Ounce just told us he was about to publish a paper on that very subject.”

“That son of a bitch!” Browne leaps to his feet and rushes past us down the hall.

“Ah,” you say, “Grubby grow the groves of academe.”

As we fly back to San Francisco, I note that were it not for the whiptail ambivalence of your sparkling earlobes I could never feel such detestation for schoenobatists masquerading as scholars.

“Are American universities all like that?”

“Pretty much. At least the ones that claim to be research universities. I never encountered a professor until I was in graduate school and then it was only in passing.”

I spend the next several moments immersing myself in your eye sockets which I find to be a wondrous amusement park filled with neo-plastic pleasures and oncogenic delights. You look gorgeously contemplative.

“You know, Roger, you’re a bit of an oddball.”

“What say you?” I cry, astonished. Aside from my fantasmo juggling tricks, copious consumption of spirits, and what you deem my intermittently incomprehensible vocabulary, I have assumed that I project pretty much the perfect image of the suave man of the earth.

“On the one hand,” you say relentlessly, “you appear to be a person with no conceit whatsoever, sort of sweet and naïve. . .”

“That’s me, for certain sure.”

“Yet at the same time you are unbearably vain, always sneaking glances at yourself in every reflective surface.”

“Ah,” I say, feeling no small measure of humiliation, “what you take to be vanity is, in fact, an existential problem. I need constantly to check that I am really here, especially after all that plastic surgery.”

“What plastic surgery?”

“I don’t like to talk about it but I was horribly maimed and disfigured from a terrorist bomb blast two years ago. The docs pretty much had to reconstruct me from itch.”

“Scratch, you mean.” You eye me appreciatively and your voice softens. “I must say they did one hell of a good job.”

“Gasser of you to say so.”

“Also since you and I have become sort of friends, you have never let me in.”

“Into where?”

“I just feel that I don’t know the real Roger O. Thornhill.”

That’s saying a chops chocked, Sweetlips, I think.

“Ah well,” I reply, “Ontology recapitulates philology.”

We do not speak for the remainder of the flight.

We are getting nowhere in our search for Teddy Teawater and Atlas Shrugg so Lucifer summons me for a confab. Following my customary proskynesis and hooves-licking, Father regards me with what I interpret as spurious benevolence.

“I shall tell you a story about immortality which might make you feel better, although I really don’t give a tinker’s damn how you feel,” He smiles. “I originally intended the pinguid Palamides to relate the story but he bollixes up French jokes so badly that I really need to tell it myself. It is the story of a man named the comte de St. Germain.”

St. Germain’s Tale

(I try to concentrate on Father’s words but three-eighths of my mind is on you, Margarita. Recalling your shoulders causes me to quiver not unlike an impotent Anglican.)

“Who was the comte de St. Germain? Frederick the Great pronounced him to be ‘one of the most enigmatic personages of the eighteenth century.’ The dates of his birth and his death are as uncertain as the events of his life. There is a widespread belief among occult circles today that St. Germain is still alive, directing the activities of the Mystical Fraternity.

“Our earliest records of him indicate that he possessed seemingly universal talents, speaking fluent German, French, Italian, and English and was knowledgeable in all the arts and sciences, especially chemistry and music.

“St. Germain claimed to all who would listen that he had visited India for the second time in 1755 where he acquired his remarkable ability to transform jewels.

“In 1757, he was introduced to the Court at Versailles by the comte de Belle-Isle, Louis XV’s Minister of War. St. Germain’s rise to prominence in Court society was immediate and extraordinary. The King provided him with sumptuous quarters in the Chateau de Chambord where he established a laboratory for alchemical experiments and he soon attracted a devoted following of aristocratic admirers who pronounced him the most remarkable man in Europe. It was rumored that St. Germain had discovered the secret of eternal youth and was, in actuality, considerably older than he appeared to be. He spoke knowledgeably of the court of Francis I and intimated that he had been personally acquainted with Mary Stuart and Margaret of Valois.”

(Why, I wonder, is Our Lord telling me all this? Although I pay close attention to His every word, I allow a part of my mind to wander pleasantly to thoughts of you, my darling, reflecting that your fingers are as divine as

the late Pope’s nostril hair).

“Louis XV ordered a middling-sized flawed diamond to be brought to him. After having it weighed, his majesty said to the comte: ‘The value of this diamond as it is, and with the flaw in it, is six thousand livres; without the flaw it would be worth at least ten thousand. Will you undertake to make me a gainer of four thousand livres?’ St. Germain examined it very attentively, and said, ‘It is possible; it may be done. I will bring it to you again in a month.’

“And so he brought back the diamond without a flaw, and gave it to the King, wrapped in a cloth of amianthos. The King weighed the diamond immediately, and found it undiminished so he sold it for ten thousand livres.

“It is difficult to know exactly what to make of this story. Obviously St. Germain could have substituted another diamond for the one given him by the King. But is it likely that he could have found a diamond exactly like the first except flawless, or that the substitute diamond would be able to fool not only the King but the King’s jeweller?

(Be still, my heart. I am obsessed with your sensuously spare shoulder blades.)

“During his stay in Paris, St. Germain gave every appearance of considerable wealth. He dressed simply but with considerable taste, his only concession to ornament the many diamonds with which he liked to adorn his fingers, his hat, even his shoes. He was a man of average size with intelligent and expressive, though not handsome, features. His rather dark complexion combined with his peculiar talent for recreating episodes from the distant past in a detailed and convincing manner, gave rise to the legend that he was the “Wandering Jew.” Perhaps the strangest thing about him was that he gave no indication of the source of his obviously sizeable income.”

(Your eyes, my sweet, are much like milky puddles of potash.)

“After three years of alternately titillating and dazzling the French court, St. Germain was entrusted with a secret mission to the Hague by the King himself. France had become embroiled in the struggle later known as the Seven Year’s War and was desperately looking for an honorable way out of it. St. Germain’s assignment was to determine through cautious overtures to the English Ambassador at the Hague what terms England would accept should France sue for peace. Why Louis would entrust such a delicate mission to a man with no background in diplomacy rather than to an experienced member of his diplomatic staff can only be explained by the king’s unfortunate predilection for secret diplomacy and by the remarkable sway which St. Germain had over him.

“Inevitably, the comte aroused the jealousy of the regular French Ambassador to The Hague, the Marquis d’Affry, who entered into a correspondence with the Due de Choiseul, an influential member of the French cabinet who, for reasons of his own, wanted the war prolonged. Meanwhile, St. Germain was making very little headway with the English Ambassador, General Yorke, who did little more than listen politely to the comte’s proposals. This intolerable situation came to a head when Choiseul managed to get hold of a letter that St. Germain had written to Madame de Pompadour. Choiseul then ordered d’Affry to expel St, Germain from The Hague and went on to warn the entire French diplomatic corps from having anything whatsoever to do with him.

(Seven Cinderellas and a cenotaph cannot compare with the scintillation of your scent.)

“Not content with these measures, Choiseul extracted from the weak and vacillating Louis permission to have St. Germain arrested in Holland. Miraculously, the Comte escaped from the clutches of the police through the good offices of his friend and supporter, Count Bentinck van Rhoon.

“St. Germain’s movements from this time until his supposed death in 1784 are a matter of considerable dispute. For the next twenty years he surfaced, in one guise or another, in almost every country in Europe, now as a Russian general, now as a Hungarian count. Each appearance added an additional coloring of mystery to his character. He seems to have participated in the founding of Masonic lodges, but the evidence is ambiguous. He was credited with miraculous feats, but we have no first hand proof. Even his death, well-documented as it is, is open to question. In 1779, St. Germain made the acquaintance of Prince Charles of Hesse-Cassell, a Freemason, who soon became his patron. Continuing with his alchemical experiments in a laboratory fitted out for him by the Prince, St. Germain spent the next several years in an atmosphere of scholarly simplicity far removed from the glittering court life to which he had become accustomed at Versailles. On the 27th of February 1784, he died, and the record of his death was duly entered in the parish register.

(Oh Margarita, your seductive sybaritism surprises me as much as if a cat shouted into an omnipresent oboe.)

“St. Germain’s story does not, however, end with his death. In 1785, a year after he was said to have died, we find his name, along with that of Mesmer, Cagliostro and St. Martin, among those included in an invitation to a Masonic conference at Wilhelmsbad. And there have been many sightings of him since.

“Is the comte still alive, directing the activities of the Mystic Brotherhood, fated for the rest of eternity to be a Cassandra crying in the wilderness?”

(I return reluctantly to the present.)

“But why, Father, have you told me this tale?”

“I see,” Lucifer says, “that I have not adequately conveyed the remarkable qualities of St. Germain to you. Perhaps we would both be better served if I simply transported you back to the eighteenth century which you, of course, missed entirely.”

“You can do that, Father?”

“I can do pretty near anything I please.”

The Fool’s Tale

James Campion sipped his tea and glanced through The North Briton. Wilkes was becoming temeritous, he thought, implying an affair between Lord Bute and the Queen Mother. The image of these two august personages in bed together caused Campion to smile. But once he’d finished the scurrilous article he put the newspaper down and sighed. Campion always looked forward to reading Wilkes but once he had done so the day ahead always seemed to loom uncomfortably empty. What had he to look forward to this day? Glancing at his calendar, he saw that he was supposed to meet with Arthur Jotun, his solicitor, at two. Blast the old tightpurse! Anolther dreary lecture on dangerously declining capital. Still, Campion reflected, I must show or I won’t get me monthly allowance, paltry as it is, and then where would I be? He looked at his calendar again and noted an almost indecipherable scribble, no doubt entered at a time when he was drunk, which was almost always. As nearly as he could make out, his note to himself indicated that Alec Dashwood was to call at 11 a.m.

Good Lord, what time is it? I can’t have Dashwood seeing me in robe and slippers.

Hastily Campion set about dressing and arranging his sitting room in a semblance of order. He donned a shirt of fresh linen, an unaccustomed luxury, but he wanted to make a good impression. Because Dashwood was reputed to be of a literary bent, Campion set out his volume of Ossian and opened it to a well-thumbed page. Indeed it was only well-thumbed page in the entire book.

When he was satisfied with the room’s appearance, Campion rang for Mrs. Perkins, his landlady, and ordered that a tray of sweetmeats be set out accompanied by a decent bottle of Madeira. The normally good-tempered Perkins balked a bit at the Madeira but he reminded her that he was due to receive his allowance today and would thus have no difficulty paying her.

Although it was a trifle early in the day for wine, Campion had no doubt that Dashwood, who had a reputation as a dedicated tippler would welcome a glass or two. There was little about Alec Dashwood that he didn’t know, having carefully studied the man before contriving an introduction. For example, he knew that Dashwood liked to be amused so he had done his best to amuse him, exercising that curious brand of charm that his friends had often commented on. And so Dashwood was paying him a personal visit, something he rarely summoned up the energy to do, and Campion was determined that this would mark the beginning of a warm and profitable acquaintanceship. He actually found Dashwood something of a bore but, in his view, a quite necessary bore because his first cousin, Sir Francis Dashwood, was an important figure in His Majesty’s government and a man of influence. After softening Alec up a bit over the next several weeks, Campion hoped to cajole him into persuading Sir Francis to obtain a commission for James in a suitable regiment. An officer’s living supplemented by his allowance would be nearly sufficient to meet his needs. The rest, lucre for luxuries, he was confident he could acquire by winning at cards against his fellow officers.

Campion cautioned himself not to appear concerned about finances, He didn’t want Alec to dismiss him as merely another wretched supplicant. It would be best if Alec himself were eventually to suggest helping him and so James vowed to be at his most amusing today.

It was well past eleven when Mrs. Perkins announced Alec’s arrival. Concealing his irritation at his guest’s tardiness, Campion rose and greeted Dashwood heartily. As they took their seats, he observed with some envy that Alec was fashionably attired in a plum-colored suit of shot silk with large sleeves embroidered to match his waistcoat, left largely open to show off his lace-trimmed tie and the fine linen shirt beneath. Alec’s shoes sported enormous buckles and he wore the yellow knee stockings that had recently come into fashion. Campion felt positively drab in comparison but reminded himself that the contrast in their clothing might work to his advantage.

“Have you read Mr. Wilkes’ latest scandal, sir?”

Dashwood laughed. “I have, sir, and I must say that never have I seen such vituperrious slander so well and aptly put. The man is putting himself in some danger but seems merry enough about it. Do you know Mr. Wilkes?”

“No sir, I do not.”

“Well, sir, he is a man of parts, ugly as a weasel, bright as a new sovereign and the best company in the world. You must meet him.”

“I can think of no one I would rather meet, save perhaps Dr. Johnson.”

“Ten years ago I might have made the same statement,” said Alec condescendingly. “But I have since made the acquaintance of both men and Wilkes is better company. He does not bully and dominate the conversation. He is not a perverse logician. And with Wilkes a man may discuss pleasures that would cause Dr. Johnson’s ears to turn red.”

“From your description, Mr. Wilkes sounds most engaging.”

“He is. Wilkes is a man of the world. Johnson is a man of the coffee house.”

“You, sir, are also a man of the world.” What a fawning sycophant I am, James thought.

Dashwood coughed politely in an unsuccessful effort to disguise his pleasure at the compliment.

“I believe that I am. And permit me to say that I did not become so in London. London is narrow. Society rules in London and society is always narrow.”

“Where, then, can one gain such experience? On the continent?”

“Sir, the continent can teach a man a great deal. A man learns refinement on the continent. How to deal with foreign tongues and ways of thought and subtle pleasures. Dr. Johnson has never visited the continent.” This last remark was delivered in a triumphant tone of voice. “But, sir, a gentleman need not venture from this island to gain experience of fleshly pleasures.”

“Where, then, if not London, can a man widen his experience?”

“In the country, sir.”

“But this is a paradox. Most country gentlemen come to London to learn the ways of the world.”

“And many London gentlemen venture to the country to learn the ways of Venus.”

Campion was taken aback. He had heard rumors of scandalous gatherings in certain country houses but they were so vague and inconsistent that he had paid little attention to them. Now he remembered that one of the most persistent canards concerned Sir Francis Dashwood’s estate in West Wycombe. Campion paused, uncertain whether to proceed with this line of conversation.

“I see,” said Alec Dashwood, “that I have embarrassed you.”

“No, sir,” Campion hastily said, “you have not but delicacy forbids me to inquire further.”

“Delicacy my arse,” said Dashwood coarsely, “you London-lovers are all alike. You need not stand on ceremony with me.”

“Sir, I ask your pardon but though my curiosity is indeed aroused it would be unseemly. . .”

Dashwood snorts. “I allowed the subject to be broached with an end in mind.”

“What end is that?”

“We are always in need of young blood, sir. Hot young blood. When I made your acquaintance you seemed a likely prospect. Wit, youth and fine looks. At that time I did not know that you shrank from even discussing such matters.”

Campion’s face flushed with anger.

He was not accustomed to being spoken to so bluntly. With some difficulty he restrained himself from making an outburst that would damage his relationship with Dashwood. He forced a chuckle.

“I promise to shed all embarrassment in future. I am much intrigued by what you have said.”

“Good,” said Dashwood, much mollified, “I thought I had not mistaken you. I am known as a good judge of men and an even better judge of rakes.”

“I have not the income to be a rake,” Campion said frankly.

“It takes little income, sir, when you frequent the right society.” Dashwood paused and gave Campion an appraising look. “I am planning to spend the next fortnight at my cousin’s estate. If you would care to accompany me I can assure you that you will have the opportunity of meeting not only Mr. Wilkes but other gentlemen who are nearly as congenial.”

“Sir,” cried Campion, “nothing would give me greater pleasure.”

Sensing that Alec did not wish to speak further on this subject, Campion related an amusing conversation he’d overheard at the Old Devil Tavern in Temple Bar. Before long, Dashwood was laughing uproariously and gladly consented to partake of the sweetmeats and wine that Campion offered. They continued their conversation over Mrs. Perkins’ Madeira and passed a pleasant hour. Upon taking his leave, Alec gave him instructions concerning their forthcoming journey and the two men parted the best of friends.

Campion remained in high spirits throughout the day. Even his meeting with old tightpurse that afternoon did not temper his good mood. He gladly paid Mrs. Perkins what he owed her and even tipped her a shilling for having provided such a good Madeira. The poor woman was half-startled out of her wits at such an unprecedented display of generosity but not fail to grab the coin with some alacrity. It was not until the following day that Campion reflected at all on his conversation with Alec Dashwood and then it began to strike him as odd. It was odd that, on such short acquaintance, Dashwood had paid him a visit and even odder that he had invited Campion to accompany him for an entire fortnight at Sir Francis’ estate. He was not accustomed to such invitations from prominent members of society. He was by no means ashamed of his family, which was an old and honorable one, though lately, as a result of his father’s improvident speculations, increasingly impoverished but Campion knew well that compared to the sort of men with whom Dashwood usually associated, he did not cut much of a figure. There must be dozens of young men of good family in London, barely distinguishable from himself, who were trying to make their way in much the same manner as he. So why had Alec Dashwood fastened on him? That was but one of the questions to which Campion could find no answer. What men would Campion meet at West Wycombe Park other than Sir Francis himself and Mr. Wilkes? And what would the nature of their association be? Alec had hinted at dark pleasures but that covered a myriad possibilities, not all of which Campion regarded with equanimity. He began to experience vague stirrings of uneasiness but countered them by recalling the benefits that could be derived from the visit. Not only would he meet prominent men on a level of complete equality and thus increase his chances of obtaining his hoped for regimental commission but his among his present acquaintances would rise considerably. He would be asked more frequently to dine, men would be more willing to lend him money and, not least important, he would be in possession of a repertoire of new anecdotes, names, and connections that could prove to be invaluable to him. In short, he would have arrived in London society. Carefully and coldly calculated, such advantages far outweighed any reservations he might have and so Campion looked forward to the journey with appetent anticipation.

When the time came for his departure, He was in a relaxed and cheerful mood. He had carefully packed all the items he considered necessary for a visit to a nobleman’s estate, including several changes of newly-bought linen and a handsome traveling case that he had acquired second-hand from a friend in the Horse Guards. (Campion did not want to appear at West Wycombe with a new traveling case, which would seem to be purchased solely for the occasion.)

Alec Dashwood’s elegant japanned coach arrived at the appointed time and Campion piled in, baggage and all, prepared to entertain his host with amusing chatter during the long ride. But Alec was in no mood for conversation. The hour was too early and he had consumed far too much claret the night before. Within a few minutes of Campion’s boarding, Dashwood was fast asleep and he gratefully reserved his carefully honed witticisms for a later time. The carriage ride was long and uncomfortable. Although West Wycombe was only thirty miles from London, the journey took the better part of the day. The coach made one stop for lunch where Dashwood temporarily revived himself and quickly downed two bottles of indifferent vin ordinaire. Drowsy once again, he resumed snoring as soon as the coach jolted off. Campion, thoroughly bored, gazed at the countryside and wished he were back in London.

They arrived at West Wycombe Park late in the evening. Campion ate a cold supper and went straight to bed, ignoring Alec’s offer to share a brandy while waiting for the arrival of Sir Francis who was expected by midnight. The next morning he learned that Sir Francis had failed to appear, apparently preferring to spend the night at a roadside inn. Since none of the other guests had yet arrived either, Campion took the opportunity of strolling alone through the grounds of the magnificent estate. The flower garden pleased him for it avoided the precise and geometrical patterns that had been popular earlier in the century and followed instead Hogarth’s prescription of expanding curves, gentle and almost voluptuous. Sir Francis’ antiquarian passions were evident everywhere. Pieces of ancient statuary, indecent and sublime, graced almost every turn in the path and miniature temples inscribed with Latin mottoes occupied many of the open spaces. One temple especially impressed him with its artful obscenity. Phallus-shaped, it was adorned with carvings of men and women locked in an astonishing variety of carnal embraces. Circling round the garden to obtain a better view of the manor house, Campion was less impressed. It represented an eclectic mixture of Greek architectural styles, combining Ionic and Doric in dual tribute to Bacchus and Venus but oddly adding a Corinthian accent to the north side and a loggia in the Venetian style above the colonnade to the south. Like the garden but less successfully, he believed, the manor house reflected its owner’s tongue-in-cheek neo-paganism.

To the north on a hill overlooking the tiny village of West Wycombe, Campion could see the steeple of what looked like a medieval church. What caught his attention was not so much the steeple itself but the huge gilded ball at its top. This was so very striking and unusual that he wondered if Sir Francis had not had a hand in its construction as well.

“I see you’re admiring the prospect.”

He turned to face a small, round-faced man with humorous eyes and full-lipped, gently smiling mouth, Sir Francis Dashwood, Lord Le Despencer, dressed in traveling clothes, fresh from his morning journey.

“It is most attractive, my lord,” Campion replied.

“And do you like the church yonder?”

“Very much, sir.”

“Mr. Wilkes says that is the first church built not for vanity or spiritual elevation but for a prospect.”

“I can think of no better reason for building a church,” said Campion with a smile, “for I must confess that this is the only church that has ever yielded me any pleasure.”

“I see, sir, that you are not a religious man,” said Sir Francis.

“I am a Christian gentleman, my lord, and therefore not a Christian.”

Sir Francis laughed and gave Campion a comradely slap on the back. “In that case you will enjoy the company here. Our only religion is pleasure but I must warn you that we worship with fanatical devotion.”

“In such a cause, not to be a fanatic is to be a fool.”

“Well said but brave words must be matched be equally brave performance. You had best harbor your courage for tonight’s fun.”

With that, Sir Francis bowed courteously and departed, his last remark leaving Campion uneasy. Was he to be subjected to some sort of initiation ceremony that evening? The thought was far from pleasant. Such activities could easily get out of hand despite the putatively harmless intentions of those involved. The truth was that he was not in the slightest courageous and detested surprise of any kind. If he knew what to expect, then perhaps he could prepare himself and not be shamed before a company of the first gentlemen in the land.

With the intention of seeking out someone who might enlighten him concerning that evening’s festivities, he returned to the manor house. After a quick turn through the halls and chambers of the first floor he concluded that no one was about. He retired to the library on the second floor, which afforded him a view of the entranceway drive. When the other guest arrived, he would know of it. Not a great reader, Campion grew quickly bored with paging through the finely bound octavo volumes of biography and history that lay scattered about on the several reading tables. The only thing that suited his mood at the moment was light verse but the shelved books were arranged in a fashion that made it difficult to locate any category of book. He was about to give up and return to his room when he spotted a thin, vellum-bound book tucked away on a lower shelf. The title, “An Essay on Woman,” pricked his interest.

Settling in a comfortable chair, he opened the book and began to read. The style was imitative of Pope and the subject matter caused him to blush. It was written in the most ribald language imaginable, discoursing at length on the delights of the female body and the gratifications that man could obtain therefrom. The poem was so wickedly amusing that he did not set the book down until he had read it through to the end. Among other things it contained references to prominent persons, some of them in the current government, that were astonishingly lewd and unquestionably libelous. After recovering from his initial shock at such frankness, Campion began to speculate about the poem’s authorship.

After considering and rejecting several possibilities he fastened on one name with a conviction approaching certainty: John Wilkes. Only Wilkes possessed both the audacity and the wit to compose such a minor masterpiece. If this were read by anyone in authority, of course, Wilkes would surely be ruined. The thought was sobering but Campion examined it from another more directly personal aspect. He admired Wilkes and even agreed with his politics as far as he understood them but it was perfectly clear that Wilkes was a man with no political future. He had so enraged the powerful that they would take the first excuse they could find to squash him as they would a bothersome bug. It was inevitable and for that reason he did not see why he should not be the one to provide the necessary pretext for Wilkes’ destruction. The rewards would be considerable. This logic seemed so unassailable that without hesitation he tucked the small volume inside his shirt and rearranged the bookshelf so that its absence would not be noticed. He strode around the room, elated, breathing deeply, scarcely able to keep from laughing aloud. He paused by the window and looked out at the magnificent prospect. As his gaze shifted downward, he realized with a slight sense of shock that the leafy curves and contours he had so admired on his walk earlier that morning were arranged in the shape of a woman’s naked body. He laughed as the thought occurred to him that Sir Francis Dashwood was no less vulnerable to exposure than Wilkes.

There was little activity at West Wycombe Park that day until late afternoon when Bubb Dodington and Paul Whitehead arrived. The two were old friends and neighbors of Sir Francis and were welcomed with a barrage of amiable insults. Campion, who had been resting in his room, came downstairs and, after introductions by Sir Francis, joined in the general merriment. He had not forgotten his plan to ferret out the secrets of that evening’s festivities and thus shrewdly placed himself next to the fat and garrulous Dodington. Amidst winks and adolescent horseplay, he found the process of extracting information a slow one but he persisted nonetheless.

As their only new initiate into secret rites, said Dodington, Campion must prove himself proficient in the arts of love. Pressed on this, Dodington refused to provide details. He merely laughed and shook a finger at Campion, saying he would discover soon enough what that entailed. He also hinted that Campion would be required to participate in a kind of religious ceremony but again disclosed no details. Dodington drunkenly slurred something about a habit but when asked about this said he meant a vice, not a habit, and laughed uproariously. After a time, Campion realized he would extract no further information from Bubb. What little he had learned made him even more uneasy than before.

The arrival of still more guests have him an opportunity to escape Dodington’s vinous meanderings. Several gentlemen had descended on the company all at once and he soon found himself lost amid a confusion of introductions. There were only two of the new arrivals who succeeded in making an impression on him. The first was John Wilkes for whom Campion had been waiting with mingled anticipation and dread. Short and uncommonly ugly with an air of indifference born of contempt for the opinions of others, Wilkes produced an unfavorable impression. His companion, who had accompanied him from London, Wilkes introduced only as M. Le Fou. There was no need to explain that was a pseudonym. As Dodington remarked, all present were fools but felt no need to flaunt the fact. The Frenchman bowed and replied in courteous, almost unaccented English that he was such a fool he forgot about it too easily and so needed a constant reminder. This witticism gained Le Fou immediate acceptance and within minutes the Frenchman was gracefully accepting toasts in his honor.

Campion could not account for the impression Le Fou made on him for there was nothing in the least remarkable about the man. He was neither unusually handsome nor unusually plain, neither tall nor short, neither well nor poorly dressed. Since looks and dress were the standards by which Campion was accustomed to judge other men’s social standing, he was unable to locate the source of the Frenchman’s curious magnetism. In an atmosphere of strained hilarity Le Fou was restrained, rarely lifting his voice above normal level and seldom laughing outright, permitting himself instead an occasional, ironic smile. It was his very blandness, Campion concluded, that set the Frenchman apart from the others. Even Wilkes’ air of world-weary indifference seemed studied by comparison.

He realized with sudden apprehension that Le Fou was studying him. Their eyes met and before Campion could avert his gaze, the Frenchman bowed and walked over to him.

“I perceive that you are not a member of this club.” Le Fou’s observation was a simple fact but Campion responded to it as an accusation.

“And you, sir, are, I suppose.”

“Not at all,” the Frenchman smiled, “and I have no intention of becoming one. I am here only as an observer.”

“Of what?”

“Quaint English customs. Only in England apparently is it necessary to go through such elaborate preparations, over-imbibing, bawdy jests, intricate rituals and so on merely to satisfy the natural cravings of the flesh.”

Campion blushed and set down his wineglass. Le Fou’s tone both embarrassed and angered him.

“It is unhealthy.” The Frenchman continued. “You, for example, are no doubt miserably frightened of what lies in store for you tonight. You are clearly a man of no experience in such matters as well as one possessing a sadly misplaced sense of amour propre.”

Campion, flushed and sweating, bewildered by Le Fou’s seeming ability to read his mind, erupted.

“Sir, I will endure your insults no longer!” Sir Francis’ guests quickly grew silent and Campion quickly realized that he had breached gentlemanly protocol by shouting. Visibly trembling and incapable of speech, he looked about the room for a savior. John Wilkes quickly moved to smooth over the incident. Draping an arm around Le Fou’s shoulders, he smiled at Campion.

“You must excuse our guest. He really is quite mad, you know. He possesses the unfortunate ability to penetrate men’s minds and uncover the sources of our occult corruption. Quite maddening, I agree. Le Fou has told me things about myself that I would not confide to the putative deity but he means no harm by it, I assure you.”

Trying to regain some measure of control, Campion essayed belligerent dignity.

“Such rudeness may cause him his life one day.”

“As to that,” Wilkes replied languidly, “I doubt it. I have yet to see a man more skilled with pistol or sword than our friend here.”

Campion felt foolish. Who was he, minimally trained in the arts of gentlemanly self-defense to challenge anyone? Had he completely lost his wits? He had clutched his glove and nearly slapped the Frenchman’s face in archaic imitation of imagined heroes. So close a brush with certain death produced a burst of hysterical laughter in him. “It was really nothing, nothing at all.”

Wilkes led Le Fou to the food table and general conversation among the guests resumed. Campion tried vainly to join in but found himself politely but firmly ignored. Even Alec Dashwood averted his eyes. He was beginning to grow desperate when Sir Francis commanded the company to silence.

“It is time,” he said. “We shall repair to the abbey where more delightful refreshment awaits us.”

A great cheer went up and there ensued a an unseemly scramble for the coaches that were waiting in the drive.

Campion found himself in the company of Alec Dashwood and Bubb Dodington. Deliriously drunk, Bubb slid from his seat onto the floor of the carriage at almost every turn. He then picked himself up, passed a brandy flask around and unsuccessfully prepared for the next roundabout. Alec sat unnaturally erect and drunkenly recited Churchill’s lines from “The Candidate”:

Whilst womanhood, in habit of a nun,

At Medmenham lies, by backward monks undone,

A nation’s reckoning, like an alehouse score,

Whilst Paul the aged chalks behind the door,

Compelled to hire a foe to cast it up,

Dashwood shall pour, from a communion-cup,

Libations to the Goddess without eyes,

And hob or nob in cyder or excise.

After a brief ride Campion’s coach pulled up in front of what looked like a deserted church. As he ascended the steps leading to the church’s entrance he espied, above the doorway, the words “FAY CE QUE VOUDRAS.”

Upon entering he was stopped from going any further by a voice he recognized as that of Paul Whitehead.

“Put this on and I will instruct you further.” A robe of coarse white linen was thrust into his hands and Whitehead disappeared into the interior of what Campion now recognized to be an abbey, not a church, unused no doubt since the time of Henry VIII.

As he struggled to pull the robe over his head, other men filed silently by, not looking in his direction.

After several minutes had passed, he heard chanting accompanied by the soft unearthly sound of a reed pipe. Soft at first, the chanting reached increasing levels of intensity. A hand upon his shoulder almost caused Campion to collapse.

“Wait until the music stops,” whispered Paul Whitehead, “then knock three times on the chapel door. When you are commanded to enter, walk with bowed head to the rail and kneel. Do you understand?”

“Yes.” Campion said hoarsely.

Whitehead disappeared. Campion nervously waited, playing nervously with the sash of his robe. The chanting ceased with a suddenness that startled him. He approached the door and knocked three times. After a short pause, a voice cried “Enter!”

He pulled open the chapel door and walked quickly down the aisle to the rail where he knelt, his head bowed.

“Declare your faith!” Sir Francis Dashwood intoned.

He looked around helplessly, then was handed what looked like a prayerbook, opened to a page with the heading “Rite of the Neophyte.” He read the required response”

“I believe in Lucifer, Father of Joy, Husbandman of Fortune, and Creator of All Earthly Delights.”

“And who is your most despised enemy?” Sir Francis asked, reading from a parallel text.

“The false god called Jehovah, Author of Misfortune, Plotter of Destiny Cruel, Despiser of the Flesh.”

“Whom do you curse most foully?”

“I curse God the Father, Jesus Christ His bastard son, the Unholy Spirit, the Apostles of Darkness Peter and Paul and all the saints.”

“Upon whom do you spit and call down Lucifer’s wrath?”

“Upon Mary, mother of Jesus, renowned trollop and whore to the Roman army.”

“What do you swear to destroy?”

“The false principles of Christian piety and that corrupt offspring of Jesus and Jehovah, the Church, whether Catholic or Reformed, in all its manifestations.”

“What do you swear to lift up?”

“The Spirit of Man, the Pleasures of Unfettered Intellect, and the Delights of the Body.”

“Do you swear this with a free and unrestrained will?”

“I do.”

“Do you likewise swear to obey all commands given you by the High Priest and all other members of Lucifer’s Holy Hierarchy?”

“Master, I swear it most solemnly.”

“Then rise, o Neophyte. Shed thy garments and consummate thy joy in this covenant upon the body of yon Sacred Virgin.”

The word “virgin” produced subdued snickers from the brethren but Sir Francis waved them to silence.

Campion was lifted by both arms and led around the communion gate to the altar. Looking up, he saw lying on the dais a woman, no longer young, with grotesquely rouged cheeks and scarlet lips, dressed in a nun’s habit. With a ludicrous attempt at seductiveness she reached down with both arms and languorously pulled the habit over her head revealing the contours of her naked, unappetizing flesh.

Campion felt fingers clutching at him, removing his robe, then his shirt and trousers. Naked he stared at the porcine, beckoning figure before him and sank to his knees. In helpless revulsion he turned away to see the eyes of every man in the room scrutinizing him intently. He pitched forward and holding his stomach, began to vomit. Before gratefully losing consciousness, he heard roars of laughter thundering through the tiny chapel.

When Campion awoke the following morning, he was back in his room in the manor house. A note from Alec Dashwood was pinned to his pillow, informing him that a carriage awaited his pleasure to take him to High Wycombe where he could board the midday coach to London.

He dressed and gathered his belongings, unable to determine whether shame at his disgrace or loathing for the authors of it predominated his mind. He hurried down the stairway, thankful that no one was about. The edifice of imagined influence and reward he had blithely constructed around his acquaintance with the Dashwoods had toppled to ruin. Within days he would be the laughingstock of London, the butt of bawdy jokes and cruel rhymes. Remembering the “Essay on Woman” now carefully secreted in his traveling case he took grim satisfaction in plans to bring the powers of the Crown down on the Dashwoods, Wilkes, Dodington, the whole revolting pack of them. Blasphemy and lèse majesté should be more than enough to send them all to prison and perhaps to Hell.

As he emerged from the house, he was surprised to see Le Fou leaning gracefully against one of the Doric columns on the front portico. The Frenchman smiled and waved in friendly greeting.

“You are taking your leave of this delightful locality?”

“I am, sir. Please let me by.”

Instead, Le Fou stepped in front of him.

“I see you take matters such as last night’s unpleasantness much too seriously. Can’t you see there was no real malice involved? You were the unfortunate victim of irresponsible children, that is all.”

“Do children commit blasphemy?” Campion asked indignantly. “Do children indulge in disgusting and secret vice?”

“How self-righteous.” The Frenchman’s tone was gently mocking. “Can you deny that you wished nothing more than to join this cadre of merry makers, men of property and distinction playing at evil? It would be more serious if they genuinely believed but they do not. They are incapable of belief. “

“Let me pass. I have no desire to listen to your bromides.”

“Of course,” said Le Fou his typically ironic smile in place, “after you give me the book.”

Campion paled. “What book?”

“The one tucked away in your traveling case.” Le Fou extended his left hand. With the sudden and sickening realization that the Frenchman was wearing a sword and gave the unmistakable impression that he knew how to use it, Campion briefly hesitated, then set down his case, opened it, extracted “The Essay on Woman “ and handed it over. Le Fou paged through the book, smiling at a few of the stanzas. “A harmless thing,” he said mildly, “but dangerous in the wrong hands. Mr.Wilkes, you see, has been a gracious host to me. More important, I cannot let a man who is destined to play an important role in the spread of liberty to be ruined by such a trifle.”

“How did you know I had it? No one saw me take it.” Campion regarded the Frenchman with astonishment bordering on superstitious awe.

“No matter. I understand the character of cowards. That is all. In return for the book I have something for you.” He reached into his pocket and extracted a small black stone, which he handed to Campion who looked at it uncomprehendingly. Le Fou then stepped aside to let the Englishman by.

Not looking up, Campion hurried down the pathway to the waiting carriage and angrily threw his traveling case up to the driver. He did not look back as the carriage rattled away from the grounds of West Wycombe Park but he sensed that the Frenchman’s amused, contemptuous eyes followed him down the drive and out the gate.

Returning to the present, I am genuinely befuddled.

Lucifer favors me with a hideous grin. ”I have treated you to a chapter in the life of the only human being who can lay claim to some measure of immortality. The comte, you see, is still very much alive and has been so for the past five thousand years. Trivial by our standards, to be sure, but unequalled save by one other human. You have actually met him, albeit under different names – Ahaseurus, Malchus. He’s often thought to be the Wandering Jew but while he wanders, he is assuredly no Jew. In modern parlance you would term him an Iraqi. I prefer his original name, by the way: Gilgamesh.”

“The King of Uruk?” I had indeed known him well. “But I thought Gilgamesh died because he failed Utnapishtim’s test to grant him immortality. He was supposed to stay awake for five days and failed to do so for even five minutes.”

“You pay too much attention to Shin-eqi-unninni’s version of the tale. In fact, I rescued both Gilgamesh and Enkidu and they are with us today, although I don’t know where. In part, I admired their literary qualities, especially Enkidu’s. Recall his marvelous description of Hell, the first ever recorded:

The house where the dead dwell in darkness,

Where they drink dirt and eat stone,

Where they wear feathers like birds,

Where no light ever invades their everlasting darkness,

Where the door and the lock of Hell is coated with thick dust.

When I entered the House of Dust,

On every side the crowns of kings were heaped,

On every side the voices of the kings who wore those crowns,

Who now only served food to the gods Anu and Enlil,

Candy, meat, and water poured from skins.

I saw sitting in this House of Dust a priest and a servant,

I also saw a priest of purification and a priest of ecstasy,

I saw all the priests of the great gods.

There sat Etana and Sumukan,

There sat Ereshkigal, the queen of Hell,

Beletseri, the scribe of Hell, sitting before her.

Beletseri held a tablet and read it to Ereshkigal.

She slowly raised her head when she noticed me

She pointed at me:

‘Who has sent this man?’”

“You, of course, were Esherkigal.”

“Of course. And I scared the hooey out of poor Enkidu. But after I had spared him, he unleashed such a barrage of complaints about letting Gilgamesh live that I decided to placate him by giving both of them immunity from disease (including aging).

“Still the fact that they’ve lived this long without getting a spear stuck in them or their heads blown off by a cannon ball testifies to their cleverness and resiliency.”

Who could adequately reply to such eloquence? I respond in all humility.

“How can Gilgamesh and Enkidu help me, assuming I can find them?”

“I would be surprised if they couldn’t help you find Teddy Teawater.”

“But they’re just humans,” I protest. “They don’t have any special powers.”

Lucifer shrugs. “They’re heroes.”

I commence quietly to convulse.

Heroes to me signify brute force, glorified thugs who happen to enjoy excellent PR. I sort of know what Our Father means but my mind is muddled with competing complexifications.

On the one hand the definition of a hero appears to be simple. Suppose for example, we assume that the “hero” is a dialectical concept, that the “hero” is allegedly committed to the creation of “life-promoting” values, that the “hero” is one who creates and defends the values that make human life possible and bearable?

Horse puckey.

Think of the mind/body split so prevalent in human culture: the idea that the spirit emanates from a higher dimension of reality whereas the body exists solely in this world. Heroes, I believe, are all body and no mind. So my conclusion is that heroes are essentially dumb asses who possess humongous physical prowess.

“But, Father, how can mere human heroes aid me in my search for Teddy Teawater?” I ask plaintively.

Lucifer rises to his full majestic vertex and intones in a voice so basso (with the merest hint of profundo): “Optical delusions still themselves when you pass by in sacral trance.

“The expanse of your intelligence is a void no universe could ever fill.”

(All this, I must say, is typical Luciferian rhetoric, invariably employed when he chooses not to explain himself.)

“May clinging beasts come to your aid in your hour of lightest need.

“Soft sausages would gladly procreate in the bathos of your virility.

“The perils of your eyelashes torture my id into a state of craven belief in Zoroastrianism.

“Were giraffe’s antennae to sprout from your barnacled elbows, one could but weep for the pretense of a fallen soul.

“You cannot compare with the apex of a Ferris wheel, nor the nadir of a ditch filled with a coelecanth’s droppings.”

I shrug in resignation and set off to find Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

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