"It was already very dense twilight when we struck southward from Purley. Suburbs and things on the London border may be, in most cases, commonplace and comfortable. But if ever by any chance they really are empty solitudes they are to the human spirit more desolate and dehumanized than any Yorkshire moors or Highland hills, because the suddenness with which the traveller drops into that silence has something about it as of evil elfland. It seems to be one of the ragged suburbs of the cosmos half-forgotten by God - such a place was Buxton Common, near Purley."
This Saturday's Locus Focus looks for a memorable (and recently remembered) setting in an early, obscure collection of short stories written by G.K. Chesterton and published in 1905, called, The Club of Queer Trades.
The six stories, making a slim volume easily read in one day, are narrated by Charles Swinburne, as he follows Basil Grant (former judge gone mad at the bench, now eccentric mystic and somewhat hermetic sleuth living mostly in his attic) and his more practical brother, Rupert Grant, private eye.
The trio is always happening upon inexplicable, often nightmarish mysteries that are inevitably discovered to have The Club of Queer Trades behind them.
This book is a gem. It is an early, crackling concentration (and portending) of many later Chesterton books: Father Brown, Manalive, The Four Faultless Felons, and there's even the air of The Man Who was Thursday in it - not to mention Dickens' The Pickwick Papers.
Before getting to the setting (nice rhyme eh?) in the fourth chapter (or fourth story), some light should be shed on what The Club of Queer Trades is:
"The nature of this society, such as we afterwards discovered it to be, is soon and simply told. It is an eccentric and Bohemian Club, of which the absolute condition of membership lies in this, that the candidate must have invented the method by which he earns his living. It must be an entirely new trade. The exact definition of this requirement is given in the two principal rules. First, it must not be a mere application or variation of an existing trade. Thus, for instance, the Club would not admit an insurance agent simply because instead of insuring men's furniture against being burnt in a fire, he insured, let us say, their trousers against being torn by a mad dog. The principle…is the same. Secondly, the trade must be a genuine commercial source of income, the support of its inventor. Thus the Club would not receive a man simply because he chose to pass his days collecting broken sardine tins, [LOL!] unless he could drive a roaring trade in them. Professor Chick made that quite clear. And when one remembers what Professor Chick's own new trade was, one doesn't know whether to laugh or cry.
"The discovery of this strange society was a curiously refreshing thing; to realize that there were ten new trades in the world was like looking at the first ship or the first plough. It made a man feel what he should feel, that he was still in the childhood of the world."
It is so good to return to this book! Each story is like a poem.
The Singular Speculation of the House-Agent is Chapter IV, and has the Grant brothers and Swinburne getting to the bottom (or shall we say top?) of an adventurous character named Lieutenant Drummond Keith, "…a man about whom conversation always burst like a thunderstorm the moment he left the room."
After Keith nonchalantly borrows a hundred pound cheque from Basil, both Rupert's and Charles' suspicions are aroused, in addition to the many other attributes about Keith's character. And they all go along with Keith to see whether this house-agent exists, of which Keith said was the purpose for the borrowed money.
The conversation between Keith and the house-agent seems coded and very evasive in front of the suspicious Charles and the far more suspicious and vehement Rupert, while the sleepy Basil seems unperturbed.
The next morning, as Rupert is having breakfast with Basil and Charles, a constable shows up at their door asking about this Lieutenant Keith, because it is apparent he gave the constable a false address after getting into a big street fight the previous night with five other people...
"'It was very simple, sir,' said the policeman, chuckling. 'The place he named was a well-known common quite near London, and our people were down there this morning before any of you were awake. And there's no such house. In fact, there are hardly any houses at all. Though it is so near London, it's a blank moor with hardly five trees on it, to say nothing of Christians. Oh, no, sir, the address was a fraud right enough. He was a clever rascal, and chose one of those scraps of lost England that people know nothing about. Nobody could say off-hand that there was not a particular house dropped somewhere about the heath. But as a fact, there isn't.'"Basil, the mystic, decides he's going to go to the address himself.
"'Get down to that place?' I repeated blankly. 'Get down to what place?'Without spoiling anything (though that may be too late at this point) they do find the Lieutenant (and his invisible home), as he greets Rupert and Charles:
"'You don't seriously mean,' cried Rupert, who had been staring in a sort of confusion of emotions. 'You don't mean that you want to go to Buxton Common, do you? You can’t mean that!'
'Why shouldn't I go to Buxton Common?' asked Basil, smiling.
'Why should you?' said his brother…
'To find our friend, the lieutenant, of course, ' said Basil Grant. 'I thought you wanted to find him?'
Rupert broke a branch brutally from the plant and flung it impatiently on the floor. 'And in order to find him, ' he said, 'you suggest the admirable expedient of going to the only place on the habitable earth where we know he can't be.'. . .
Rupert ran after him with a considerable flurry of rationality.
'My dear chap, ' he cried, 'do you really mean that you see any good in going down to this ridiculous scrub, where there is nothing but beaten tracks and a few twisted trees, simply because it was the first place that came into a rowdy lieutenant's head when he wanted to give a lying reference in a scrape?'. . .
. . .There was certainly a sort of grey futility in the landscape itself. But it was enormously increased by the sense of grey futility in our expedition. The tracts of grey turf looked useless, the occasional wind-stricken trees looked useless, but we, the human beings, more useless than the hopeless turf or the idle trees. We were maniacs akin to the foolish landscape, for we were come to chase the wild goose which has led men and left men in bogs from the beginning. We were three dazed men under the captaincy of a madman going to look for a man whom we knew was not there in a house that had no existence. A livid sunset seemed to look at us with a sort of sickly smile before it died. . . .
. . .The wind swirled sadly over the homeless heath…There was not a sign of man or beast to the sullen circle of the horizon, and in the midst of that wilderness Basil Grant stood rubbing his hands with the air of an innkeeper standing at an open door.
'How jolly it is,' he cried, 'to get back to civilization. That notion that civilization isn't poetical is a civilized delusion. Wait till you've really lost yourself in nature, among the devilish woodlands and the cruel flowers. Then you'll know that there's no star like the red star of man that he lights on his hearthstone; no river like the red river of man, the good red wine, which you, Mr Rupert Grant, if I have any knowledge of you, will be drinking in two or three minutes in enormous quantities.'. . .
'Happy to see you, gentlemen; pray come in.'
Out of a hole in an enormous dark egg-shaped thing…was protruding the pale face and fierce moustache of the lieutenant…
We fell into the full glow of a lamp-lit, cushioned, tiny room, with a circular wall lined with books, a circular table, and a circular seat around it. At this table sat three people…The spears, the green umbrella, and the cavalry sword hung in parallels on the wall. The sealed jar of strange wine was on the mantelpiece, the enormous rifle in the corner. In the middle of the table was a magnum of champagne. Glasses were already set for us."