On the steps of the Temple Hall a half-naked mongol1 was proclaiming the end of the world. Three centuries earlier, William, earl of Orford, who had gone mad the previous summer2, had stood on the same spot, raving in the same madness, before the king’s men arrested him for disturbing the peace; he was hanged the next day.
My education forces me to come up with a connexion between the mad earl and the mad, half-dressed prophet; but my researches only unearthed contradictions: William was vicious, he was pure; William had fifteen sons from eight wives,—he, on the other hand, fathered a whole nation. Perhaps in some way (which I am forbidden to see) William of Orford, mad, fat, stinking, was the same man who had travelled half the world to plague London with dreams. His snowy white robe—the only thing he wore—seemed to warm his dark skin and protect it from the ravages of the winter wind when the rest of us felt its pangs keenly. Lady Bexborough did not seem troubled by this. What vexed Lady Bexborough is that London should extend her hospitality to him for so long.
Then I discovered that the mongol was no mongol at all;3 he had come to London on board HMS Bertrand with his harem of miner’s wives and daughters to parley with the King and his Ministers on some pressing matters regarding his homeland. (Oh that these savages could fancy themselves the King’s equals, cried some duke to some other baronet.) The ladies of Bond Street however fell in love with him at first sight and they convinced their husbands to humour the poor man and consider only his trouble of crossing deserts and rivers and oceans just to have a warm afternoon chat with them, and aren’t they honoured?
Here is a man born of pirate blood, a mystic;4 here is his brother, a much-maligned voyeur, no doubt the new Cassandra of a land forlorn; here is their descendant, thrice, five times removed, with a prophecy and a promise of salvation.
In his last weeks in London I decided to join the crowds that flocked Temple Hall and listen to the unkempt boddhi5 decry the Empire built by our ancestors. But there were no fiery speeches, no angry denunciations, no prophecies of doom. I was unprepared to hear the story of a rabbit who met Brahma; of the widow who did not eat for ten years until the sky returned her husband whom it had stolen (the sky fell in love with her husband); of the Tiger-King that made peace with the first Raj of india after his own daughter fell in love with the Raj…
A week later, I was on a ship to Goa. I had by then, entirely forgotten of Lady Bexborough, or the letter from Balliol that announced I was a fellow at last, or my brother’s death the night before my departure, or the thousand other petty things that constituted my life in London. I have left them all now. I had followed the prophet to his homeland. I am a bit sea-sick, yes, but all was well.
- See infra.
- See Beckford’s A Gentillman’s Historie of Ynglonde, XVI.xxiii:
& Willem vvhoe vvas nemed erle of Orford & Lounde by His Majestie vpon ye death of hys father … ygone to a hunting trep in ye vvodes of Northamptõ Shyre with his frende … & yt it was rapportyd … &c. &c. … yt he fell ylle vpon ye iii. deye & spake of phantosmes, i.e., faeries in ye vvode & hys father ye late erles Spryte, vvhyche hontyd hem & seyd reveng mine Spryte, & spake of nothyng els… & hee retournd to Londyn therafter & toke to preachyng & many vvhoe hath sene hem befor novv seyd he hath yloste his vertue for he vvas a vertuese man…
- See supra.
- Cf. Nietzsche’s Genealogy: Der Mystiker ist ein Gefäß: er ist selbst bedeutungslos.
- A misinformed abbreviation.